UK director Amma Assante prefaces her new film, When Hands Touch, with a quote from James Baldwin, setting the film’s serious tone. Assante, as she did with 2013’s Belle and 2016’s A United Kingdom, takes a personal story of an inter-racial relationship and places it in a broader historical context, informing the story with an examination of surrounding structural and social prejudices. And, as with the other two, When Hands Touch was made to be popular, with an anxious need to appeal to the mainstream. Is Assante afraid that her bold political concerns are a bit much for audiences?
Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), is the bi-racial child of Kerstin (Australia’s Abbie Cornish), who’s also the mother of a young boy from a white German father. Kerstin removes her family to Berlin to prevent her daughter undergoing a forced sterilisation, which was the Third Reich’s way of dealing with the problem of Germany’s 500 or so mixed-race children known as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. These children were born to German mothers by French soldiers of north African birth stationed at border areas of Germany after WWI. (There was a total black population of 20,000–25,000 in Germany at the time.)
We are introduced to Leyna in voice-over telling us how everything changed for her the year she turned 16. One of the first things you notice about this film is the speech patterns. Everyone speaks a formal English with vaguely Germanic intonation and sentence structures. I found this annoying and distracting; it seems to inhibit the actors too, they tend to make pronouncements instead of relating naturally to each other.
In Berlin, Leyna meets Lutz (George MacKay), proud member of Hitler Youth and keen to demonstrate heroism for the Fatherland on the battlefield. Lutz is the son of SS officer Heinz (Christopher Eccleston), who has his own views about the clamour for war being whipped up by Hitler along with mandatory demonstrations of patriotism. Heinz listens to Billie Holiday records in secret. Leyna is confident of her identity as a German woman but as society divides itself, falling into Nazi party lines, despite not being Jewish she comes to realise how unsafe she is. She and Lutz are drawn to each other as the known world falls apart.
The attachment between Leyna and Lurtz is a formulaic portrayal of blossoming love: the obligatory bicycle rides, walks through the woods, sharing of secrets … The couple sits on a hill with a view over the town, discussing big ideas. Leyna is the first woman of colour Lutz has seen and he tells her about his father’s secret collection of Billie Holiday records. He gives Leyna a ring from his dead mother, a token that assumes significance later in the film.
When Hands Touch is a historical romance, nicely done, but its conventional approach makes the film more of an exercise in good taste than something that grabs the gut. In representations of Nazi Germany, certain images are now over-familiar: lines of Jews with their suitcases, Nazi soldiers pushing Jews into lines, the herding of people onto trains, interior scenes with the radio on in the background, images of soldiers’ feet marching to indicate an army on the move, the ground beneath the feet changing from spring grass to dry brown to snow to show the passage of time … The scenes of the camp (filmed on the Channel Islands) are duotone, all blue-grey and brown, almost prettily so.
When Hands Touch doesn’t deliver the romantic ending you’d expect, but the story is tied up nicely.
You can’t go wrong making a film this way, but with such excellent subject matter you could create something unforgettable. When Hands Touch is memorable for presenting events of Nazi Germany from a new point of view and giving us characters with unusual dilemmas, but not for a deeply felt emotional experience.
Three and three quarter stars