Amma Asante is one of the more exciting directors working today. Belle is a genuinely powerful glimpse into the history of race relations in 18th-Century England. A United Kingdom may not be as great as Belle, but that doesn’t mean that story is less valuable with its importance. Asante routinely looks into history and plucks out of obscurity vital stories related to black and biracial history. This context is necessary when it come to her latest film, Where Hands Touch, a mildly problematic, but still oddly engaging, film about a young black German girl in World War II, and the relationship that sparks between her and a Nazi soldier.
Unlike Belle and A United Kingdom, Where Hands Touch is a fictional narrative that has been influenced by the real stories of Afro-Germans from the Rhineland. The horrifying persecution of Black Germans during the reign of the Third Reich is a story that deserves its place in the spotlight, especially as an avenue of exposing the terrifying eugenics laws that thrived in Germany during that era, which makes the way Asante has saddled this exploration of history with an Nazi-romance a little, well, strange. It’s here, as sole writer, that Asante’s weakness at a filmmaker becomes apparent.
The plot is complex, but can’t help but feel slight in comparison to the enormity of the subject matter Asante is exploring. We follow Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), an Afro-German biracial girl who lives with her white mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish), and her brother Sebastian (Ethan Rouse), in Germany as World War II rolls on. Leyna’s black father is no longer in Kerstin’s life, with a slight hand wave of a reason as to why he is not around. Leyna is a proud German girl, which makes the persecution she receives for her skin colour from her fellow Germans all the more difficult to process. In a bid to protect her daughter as much as possible, Kerstin has documents forged to state that Leyna has been voluntarily sterilised. Meanwhile, Sebastian is enrolled in the Hitler Youth program, which leads Leyna to meet Lutz (George MacKay), and eventually, the two fall for each other.
While it might be easy to point to the romance as being the biggest problem with Where Hands Touch, that would be to dismiss the biggest problem, which is the unfortunately poor casting from the usually reliable Abbie Cornish and Amandla Stenberg. On paper, the casting of these two actresses in an Amma Asante film ticks all the right boxes, and likely given any other subject material, they would be superb. However, when you cast an Aussie actress and an American actress in the roles of born and bred German women, well, it just doesn’t work. While I’m not a stickler for accents – being Australian and hearing an age of bad Aussie accents has made me forgive other less than stellar accents –, it’s hard not to be taken out of the immediacy of a narrative that requires a deep emotional connection every time these characters speak. On top of this, the less said about the decision to over-whiten Abbie Cornish’s eyebrows the better.
Bad accents aside, Amandla Stenberg tries her hardest to imbue Leyna with as much authenticity as possible, but sadly struggles with the material. The pain that Leyna goes through is obvious, but there’s a clear aspect of telling, not showing, going on here. With that said, the scenes Amandla Stenberg shares with George MacKay are tender and welcome. Yes, some may cringe at the idea of two Germans falling for each other during Nazi-run Germany, especially given one is a Nazi soldier, and the other appears to be ok with some of the Nazi actions, just as long as they’re not happening to her (another sign of the unclear scripting going on), but there is a level of authenticity that the two share that helps elevate Where Hands Touch up to the point of being not entirely terrible.
This isn’t a good film, but it’s also not as horrible as many reports suggest it is. It’s clear what Amma Asante was trying to achieve with this story, it’s just unfortunate that the story of Afro-Germans in World War II was underdeveloped. Possibly with a different screenwriter, or even a different cast, Where Hands Touch might have been something truly great. Unfortunately, as it is, it’s very middle ground fare that neither moves, engages, or informs – it simply exists. With all of this said, keep an eye on Asante as she is still one of the most exciting directors out there, she just now has a dud feather in her cap.
Director: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Abbie Cornish, George MacKay
Writer: Amma Asante