Where Hands Touch | 2018 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review
I See a Dark Stranger: Asante Examines Obscured Holocaust Perspective in Anglo Period Piece
British director Amma Asante rounds out a thematic trilogy of sorts with her fourth feature, Where Hands Touch, a harrowing account of a mixed-race teenager struggling to survive in WWII Berlin. A spirited follow-up to Asante’s 2013 breakout Belle (review) and 2016’s A United Kingdom, the director once more unearths a provocative interracial narrative heretofore largely ignored by most mainstream English language cinema.
In keeping with a tradition of many a Holocaust survival drama, which includes the nagging distraction of forcing all its German characters to speak in accented English, Asante’s latest is thematically her most familiar effort to date, as well as her grisliest. While the film more often than not succeeds in relating the oft unexplored predicament of Germany’s Rhineland children (referred to derogatorily as Rhineland Bastards), who were children with Aryan mothers fathered by black French Army personnel during the occupation of the Rhineland during WWI, and does include instances of extreme and disquieting violence (as is fitting considering the subject matter), its insistence on adhering to formulaic old-fashioned romantic melodrama sometimes drains its otherwise imperative recuperation.
In 1944 Germany, a single Aryan mother (Abbie Cornish) is forced to migrate from the countryside to Berlin to better protect her biracial teenage daughter Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), with her white, half-brother Cohen (Tom Sweet) is also in tow. After successfully obtaining forged papers which state Leyna has been officially sterilized, as dictated by the Third Reich, they are turned away from relatives and forced to fend for themselves. While Leyna’s position becomes more and more tenuous, she finds an unexpected romance blossom with Hitler youth Lutz (George Mackay), whose father (Christopher Eccleston) is an important SS commander.
Asante culls a fine lead performance from Amandla Stenberg (the Hunger Games alum also gives a similarly compelling turn in George Tillman Jr.’s latest The Hate U Give), and the weight of the film’s second and third acts lies squarely on her shoulders. And yet, with the disappearance of a blonde-browed Abbie Cornish (the Australian actress in fine, if heavily accented form as Leyna’s fiercely protective mother), the energy of Where Hands Touch suffers drastically once we’re transported into a Bavarian concentration camp, where a racist if strangely kindhearted Nazi woman allows Leyna to work in the kitchen. Up and coming British actor George Mackay (of Pride and Captain Fantastic) gets to show off his Aryan potential as an SS commander’s son who falls in love with Leyna, despite his country’s efforts to convince him he’d rather be a racist murderer, and their eventual romance is allowed at least a requisite number of scenes to prove believable enough by melodrama standards. Like the James Baldwin quote which opens the film, Asante’s script does a fine job of navigating particularly potent ideas, including conversations juxtaposing the treatment of blacks in America vs. Germany. Inspired by a magazine cover featuring Billie Holiday, owned secretly by Lutz’s jazz loving father, Leyna’s musings about escape to the U.S. are cut abruptly short. “They hang people like you over there.” And thus, Leyna’s insistence on clinging to her German identity, despite her French roots and the fact her own country openly wishes to exterminate her, presents a complex system of self-loathing which Asante’s film, by default, can only scratch the surface of.
While Where Hands Touch isn’t elevated in quite the same way as Belle, which featured a superb lead performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, this is perhaps Asante’s most immediate and potent effort to date despite its period setting. Revealing the bizarre Aryan hierarchy which dictated those mixed race Rhineland children were a hair’s breadth better than the Jews, gays, and gypsies they had been so merrily mass exterminating, how it feeds into Leyna’s desire to be seen as a German and not a racial other drives her into a similarly troubling predicament as the Deborah Kerr character in I See a Dark Stranger (1946), an Irish lass whose ties to the NRA and hatred for the British make Nazism seem the better choice. Many will see the revelatory components of Where Hands Touch as evidence of its importance and should hopefully provide a gateway to those countless other harrowing WWII narratives still requiring release from their neglected tombs, as well as reflecting on the troubling rise of fascist tendencies and ideals.
Reviewed on September 9th at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival – Special Presentations Program. 122 Mins.