You can tell Amma Asante, erstwhile director of Belle and A United Kingdom, means well by Where Hands Touch. That’s why it hurts so to label it a misfire, which it surely is. Much akin to her work on this year’s mixed series of The Handmaid’s Tale, Asante displays here an evident eye for the cinematically seductive but proves less skilled in pairing such with hardline narrative. Indeed, it is a persistent niggle of the film that Nazi Germany should not enjoy so romantic a reminiscence.
Inspired by true events, Asante’s script mines the precarious societal status of Germany’s so-called Rheinlandbastarde, the derogatory name gifted citizens of mixed race. Not so openly rejected by the Nazis as Jews and homosexuals, non-white nationals nonetheless challenged the omnipresence of Hitler’s Aryan race and, thus, suffered the consequences of being different by birth. Sterilisation was enforced and de-patriation threatened for those who could not evidence their having been so. Verbal – here Asante’s heroine is all too often labelled ‘monkey’ – and physical abuse became commonplace on the street, with all from the very young to the very old offering cold rejection. That was the reality, even if Where Hands Touch finds sentiment and tolerance at every turn.
At least Hunger Games’ alumnus and The Hate U Give breakout Amandla Stenberg continues her strong form in the lead. She plays Leyna, daughter of Kerstin (Abbie Cornish) and a long since disappeared French-Senegalese soldier. There’s a younger brother on the scene too – Tom Sweet‘s adorable Koen – but watch as the Hitler Youth lures him in. Things aren’t exactly jovial for Leyna as the film opens, with her hiding from the Gestapo beneath thin wooden floorboards, but it’s a bleak trajectory that leads her first to false hope and latterly to the labour camps. Along the way, Leyna falls for Lutz (George MacKey) – a kind of reverse Kurt from The Sound of Music – and suffers the flailing inadequacy of a doomed relationship. Christopher Ecclestone does well in the war weary part of a poor-man’s Schindler, whilst there’s something to be said too about Melissa Jogia’s quietly devastating turn as a young woman with little to live for: ‘Now I will die because I have no shoes!’
The chief faults of the film are threefold. First of these is the unquestionable fact that no self-respecting film of consequence should reduce its talent to churning out faux German accents. Of equal fault is an inappropriately orchestrated score by Anne Chmelewsky, which swoons heavily in scenes where silence would have better achieved gravitas. The third is best epitomised by the moment in which Lutz can be seen singing gently to himself upon a uniformed truck. Rather than the likes of Saving Private Ryan, the sequence recalls the initial beats of Sunshine on Leith, in which MacKay enacts exactly the same routine.
In short, Where Hands Touch is too lovely to echo reality and too grim to invite comfort viewing. Tensions are teased but unfulfilled, with darkness dropped in bite size doses instead of persistently nuanced. Lutz fails to ring true simply because one imagines the eyes of a man torn as he is between duty and integrity to evoke more trauma than MacKay ever does. Stenberg, to her credit, fares better with internal conflict and yet Asante never wholly capitalises upon the potential of it.
While there’s no denying the beauty of the thing – take the post-coital image of two lovers bathed in speckled light, beneath a unifying rug – but its suitability is less certain. Said scene reminds of a work by Ingres and is no less problematic. Asante is also a powerhouse talent but here just doesn’t ring true.