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United Kingdom 2018
Directed by
Amma Asante
122 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Where Hands Touch

Synopsis:  The story of Lenya, a bi-racial 16 year-old Rhinelander and her fight to survive Nazi Germany.

I haven’t seen either of Amma Asante’s two previous films also dealing with racial issues, Belle (2013) and A United Kingdom (2016) but Where Hands Touch, which evidently shares the same abiding concern, is both emotionally-wrenching and succeeds with the oft-fumbled task of balancing the personal and the historical.

Not that it starts off too promisingly, looking as it does like innumerable predecessors with their cowering citizenry and abundant signs of thuggish Nazi hegemony.. In this familiar fashion Asante unfolds the awkward and dangerously illicit romance between Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) and Lutz (George MacKay) the somewhat older son of a Nazi officer (Christopher Ecclestone). Shooting from her own script she uses dialogue particularly between Lenya  the daughter of a black soldier who was part of the French force occupying Germany after World War I and her white German single mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish) to spell out the historical realities for black-skinned Germans (of which, the end titles tells us, there were some 25,000) under Hitler.

Once, however, the story shifts to the labour camp to which Lenya is sent and the focus becomes her sheer survival, the film really takes hold of us. The brutality of the camp, with the shaven headed, under-nourished women in thin, tattered smocks struggling to survive the harsh winter conditions stands in potent, heart-breaking contrast to the almost picture-book setting of the earlier part of the film.

Although the narrative does at times seem improbably contrived (Lutz and his bicycle pop up conveniently whenever Lenya goes out and what are the chances of him being posted to the same labour camp, with his father what's more, as she?) Asante’s decision to concentrate her drama through the interactions of her four main protagonists gives the film an intensity it otherwise would not have had.  Remi Adefarasin’s cinematography and Arwel Jones’s production design work together seamlessly to support Asante's strategy and take us through Lenya’s terrible odyssey.

The film has in some quarters been criticized for soft-pedalling, even romanticising, Nazi ideology but this is an unfounded accusation. Yes, despite his chivalrous attraction to Lenya, Lutz is a card-carrying member of Hitler Youth and believes firmly in its tenets but Asante’s point is that he is foolishly young, easy fodder for the perversions of racist rhetoric. Indeed both he and Lenya pay the price of their youthful naiviete in what is, in this respect, a heart-breaking coming-of age story.  

Where Hands Touch is a substantial addition to the very crowded category of the Nazi/Holocaust film. The performances all round are excellent with Stenberg and MacKay both very effective in demanding roles and actor-turned-director Asante bringing her original, multi-layered story to the screen with commitment and flair.




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