TIFF 18: ‘Where Hands Touch’ is an Emotional & Touching Story Through the Eyes of a Biracial German Girl – Review

Where Hands Touch is Amma Asante’s passion project, which she has been developing for years. She stumbled upon this untold story of the Rhineland Bastards (biracial German children) by accident and has dedicated her directing career into producing this film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. This is Asante’s fourth world premiere at TIFF, and her third film to specifically address the issues of race and identity as it pertains to Black people in predominantly white spaces.

Belle followed Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life biracial niece of Lord Chief Justice of England, William Murray. Set in 1761 the film explores the complex nature of Belle’s economic privilege and her racial disadvantage. Asante followed up that with A United Kingdom which explored the real-life marriage of President Sertese Khama and Ruth Kama. Their relationship played an integral part in the eventual independence of Bechuanaland (Botswana) from the British Empire. Now, Asante turns her camera to a rarely discussed or explored experience during the Nazi Regime.

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Amandla Stenberg as Leyna

Where Hands Touch tells the story of a biracial German girl living in Nazi Germany and how she must learn to survive during this harrowing time. The experiences of biracial German children differ from the Jewish population but, they like many, “undesirables” were persecuted and murdered on Hitler’s orders for his vision of a pure Aryan nation. As Amandla Stenberg’s Leyna explains at the beginning of the film, these children had the advantage of being German through their German mothers, who had romantic relations with Black French soldiers during the occupation of World War I. Leyna’s story is an amalgamation of the many horrors biracial German children endured. Despite being German, their racial identity was a mark against them, and the very small minority could not escape Hitler’s hatred.

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Abbie Cornish and Amandla Stenberg as Kerstin and Leyna

Leyna is a 16-year-old girl who lives with her strong German mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish) and young brother, Koen (Tom Sweet). Leyna lived her entire life in Rhineland as the sole Black German. In the opening narration, Leyna confesses to never seeing another soul who looked like her. Kerstin becomes worried when the Nazi’s begin to ramp up their efforts to clear out the Jewish community and other undesirables. Leyna is somewhat safe because Hitler’s regime refrained from attacking children like her as that would mean they would be attacking their Aryan mothers. However, that does not last long. Kerstin moves her family to Berlin assuming that Leyna would be safe there, but the move sets Leyna on a dangerous path.

Leyna captures the attention and heart of a young Nazi, Lutz (George Mackay) and is also unable to blend in with society. Leyna and Lutz begin a friendship which quickly becomes a romance, but things fall apart when Lutz is pulled to serve in the army and the Gestapo set their sights on Leyna. Leyna’s journey has her confront the nature of her situation and understand the harsh reality of being Black, not only in Germany but anywhere in the world. 

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Amandla Stenberg and George MacKay as Leyna and Lutz

Asante’s latest feature carries similar themes and stories that her previous films have. At the heart of the film is the story of a woman having to learn and accept her place in a world which is hostile towards her for no other reason than her skin color. Asante’s exploration of the complex narrative of Black people throughout history in Europe is something we rarely see. When race and history are explored in cinema we often see stories and imagery of slavery, or the Civil Rights era in America. The people in Asante’s other films – Dido, Sertese and Leyna are people whose stories we have not been told on screen, and certainly not in lavish period dramas.

Aside from slight pacing issues, Where Hands Touch is a wonderfully crafted film. Asante’s assured direction produces stunning and shocking imagery. Stenberg is doing her best, although the German accent could have been improved. Thankfully, her natural charisma and talent shine brightly through Leyna. Stenberg brings so much empathy to a young woman who is at first naive to the dangers of being an “undesirable”, but grows to be unapologetic of who she is. MacKay also mirrors Stenberg’s journey as the conflicted and confused German; eager to protect his country, but somewhat willfully blind to the atrocities being done for Germany’s sake. Across the board, Asante assembled an impressive cast of period drama pros, who with ease, portray the many dimensions of their characters and the complexities of this time in Germany’s history.

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Leyna in a work camp

Asante also enlists the help of composer Anne Chmelewsy who put together a touching and delicate score that transports you into this hauntingly beautiful narrative. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin does a great job of capturing Leyna’s ever-changing world from her bright and happy days in Rhineland to the dark underbelly of the war. The people behind Where Hands Touch crafted this film with care and were conscientious of the seriousness needed to depict this story; straying far away from ever shining a sympathetic light on the monsters. The only individual that is given the slightest amount of sympathy is Lutz as he is representative of the ill-informed youth during this time.

Where Hands Touch is one of many films that depicts the horrors of the Nazi Regime and the many complicated relationships that came out of it. However, Where Hands Touch stands out because it has a clear perspective and honest intentions: to tell the stories of those rarely seen or heard. Cinema is many things; one of those things is a tool for education. Asante focuses our attention on yet another story of the Black experience and she accomplishes what she sets out to do. Where Hands Touch is an important and beautiful film.

Where Hands Touch is now in theatres.

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