Director: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Abbie Cornish, George MacKay, Christopher Eccleston
Watch Where Hands Touch online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / Rakuten TV / Sky Store
Amma Asante is one of the UK’s most important, interesting and (crucially) accessible filmmakers today. From A United Kingdom to Belle, she has proven a vital and rewarding talent, with a knack for shining a light on unknown passages of history, and black individuals within them whose stories have long been untold. Moreover, she’s done all of this with a sweeping style that opens up these stories to mainstream audiences, building empathetic bridges in rousing, moving style. Even great directors, though, can have misfires.
Where Hands Touch is romantic drama set against the horrors of World War II, a tale of the bond that forms between a young biracial woman and a Nazi officer. It’s a bold, surprising move, partly because the “Rhineland Mischlingers” – the children of German women and black colonial troops – are rarely talked about in any context, let alone a film. It’s also because the eyes of a young black woman are an equally rare lens through which to view World War II.
There’s enormous value in both of these things being addressed by a movie, even one that uses romantic cinema conventions to make it subject matter accessible – a series of tweets went viral earlier this year, thanks to a clip that sees our lead couple staring dreamily at each other across a concentration camp. But Where Hands Touch only becomes more misjudged as it goes on, as every attempt to sell its star-crossed romance between a persecuted minority and a member of the Hitler Youth rings false.
Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) is a teenager who is whisked away to Berlin by her mother (Abbie Cornish), along with her brother (Tom Sweet), in order to escape attention from Nazi officers – she even has fake papers claiming she’s been sterilised to help her get a factory job. But in the German capital, her path collides with that of Lutz (George MacKay), a young Nazi. He’s raised by his dad (Christopher Eccleston), a man who secretly hides a Billie Holliday vinyl in his office, and we gradually learn that both are doing what they must to survive. (“You wear the mask that will get you through the war,” Eccleston’s earnest officer tells his uniformed son, during one heated confrontation in a forest.)
But the more the movie humanises MacKay’s Nazi, the more the movie loses its focus on Stenberg’s protagonist, and the pertinent exploration of national and personal identity becomes muddied by a narrative that feels too shallow to really provoke and too contrived to truly convince – a feeling not helped by the fact that this is a film in which all the Germans are played by English-speaking actors (a decision that, no matter how good the cast, always risks undermining a drama set overseas). One line in which Leyna describes Holliday’s music, and a moment where she betrays another concentration camp captor, stick out like sore thumbs, both telling signs that the film has failed to delve into the psychology behind each of them, and those tiny missteps build across the movie’s two-hour runtime, from the swooning music during key scenes to its generic, undeveloped title. Son of Saul and The Counterfeiters are some of the films that have brought fresh perspectives to a horrifying chapter in history, but like the tweets of video clips that were taken down from Twitter under copyright claims, Where Hands Touch isn’t one one that will linger long in the memory. A misjudged affair, and a tragically missed opportunity.