In Nazi Germany during World War II there were 25,000 people of color, many of whom were killed by their fellow Germans. I agree with the filmmaker Amma Asante that their stories should be told. But Ms. Asante’s new film, “Where Hands Touch,” an attempt to tell one such story, is a gut-wrenching misfire.
The movie begins in 1944 in idyllic-looking Rüdesheim, in the Rhine Valley. The area’s residents of color included some people who were disparagingly called “Rhineland bastards” — children fathered (supposedly) by French soldiers of African descent who occupied the Rhineland in the aftermath of World War I. Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), about to turn 17, is one of these children. Her single mom, played by Abbie Cornish, is, on one evening, panicked by a visit from the local Gestapo. (The actors playing these goons, who, like almost everyone else in the film speak in English with German accents, sound as if they’ve watched too many episodes of “Hogan’s Heroes.”) The family moves to Berlin, which turns out not to be a great idea. The younger brother is required to join the Hitler Youth, and Leyna, expelled from school, is put to work in a factory with her mother.
No matter how much humiliation she’s subjected to, Leyna is determined to assert her German identity. This trait is meant, I suppose, to make the viewer reflect on the James Baldwin quote that appears at the movie’s opening: “There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.” But the devices this movie constructs to connect to Baldwin’s thought are insufficient, to say the least.
As the movie plods on, Leyna meets Lutz (George MacKay), the fresh-faced son of a Nazi bureaucrat who is more gung-ho about Hitler’s crusade than his father is. Their secret romance is cut short when Lutz is sent on an army assignment and Leyna is thrown into a Bavarian labor camp.
When I reviewed Ms. Asante’s previous film, “A United Kingdom,” last year, I noted that the writer/director “addresses contemporary concerns via period romance, and her commitment to the romance is not a feint.” She tries to do something similar here, but in this film the commitment to romance is not an illuminating factor, but a fatal miscalculation.
A love scene between Leyna and Lutz leans rather far into a notion that while National Socialism might have been devastating for humanity in general, it could do wonders for one teenage girl’s sexual awakening.
When Leyna and Lutz are reunited at the labor camp, which is directly across from a smoke-bellowing death camp that’s cremating Jews, the wobbly scenario becomes full-on grotesque. The stridently theatricalized violence is horrific only because it’s so abjectly manipulative. By the end of the movie, my jaw felt unhinged from dropping so often.
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Where Hands Touch
Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images, sexuality and language. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.