Fanning the still smoldering ashes of the Holocaust, the movies guarantee (if nothing else does) the most evil and destructive chapter in human history will never be forgotten. Anyone with a brain already knows about the massive atrocities in Nazi Germany against the Jews. Now comes a harrowing new footnote to World War II about another kind of victim—the biracial Germans who were also targeted for death in Hitler’s plan for a master race. Where Hands Touch is a coming of age story, a saga of war, and a heart-rending love story about a forbidden romance that defied the odds against survival in a living hell.
Fifteen-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) is the daughter of a black African father who died when she was born and a white German mother (Abbie Cornish) who has devoted her life to protecting her child from the growing racism of 1944. The swastikas hanging from Berlin windows are clear indications of time and place, but otherwise it seems very much a story of today.
WHERE HANDS TOUCH ★★★ 1/2
Lenya finds the color of her skin to be a constant source of bigotry, curiosity and danger. The gestapo threaten to sterilize her, she never knows security or where her future lies. Her mother’s relatives feel compromised by her presence in the house, she is kicked out of school, and when her little brother (pure German) is forced to leave home and join the Hitler Youth movement, Leyna loses her closest ally. She is not Jewish, but she’s not Aryan either, which makes her doubly vulnerable. Yet youth and the warmth of a bracing friendship blooms in spite of the misery around her when Leyna falls in love with a boy named Lutz (George McKay), the sensitive son of a prominent Nazi official who tows the line to please his father but is secretly just as confused by the pervasive antisemitic credo of National Socialism as Leyna.
As their teen camaraderie grows into a more serious love affair, the two try to escape from the horrible cruelties and dehumanizing atrocities around them by listening to verboten American jazz records. They find Billie Holiday more liberating than Nazi marching bands, which fuels the exotic allure Lutz already feels for Leyna, but their love affair grows more dangerous every day. Lutz wants to be a good German soldier, loyal to the dogma of the Reich that is driven into his head like a nail, but conflicted by a strong sense of right and wrong and a need for the personal freedom to make his own choices. A strong sense of oncoming horror is inevitable.
One by one, the people who love and defend Leyna are separated and removed from her life. Alone, without the proper papers, she is sent to a labor camp where the hardships intensify and the human degradation is too tough to watch. Miraculously, in the shadow of Hell, Leyna becomes something of a humanitarian, risking her life to ease the suffering of others, while Lutz, now a concentration-camp guard, loses all of his allusions about the honor of a proud German fighting for the Fatherland. All is lost except for one last flicker of their undying friendship, but even in the harsh reality of their hopeless fate, nothing ends as you think it will and cliches are gratefully avoided.
A tale of trauma and survival, Where Hands Touch is grim, compelling stuff, but the tireless humanism of the two leading characters makes it undeniably moving, aided by the careful and empathetic guidance of British writer-director Amma Asante (Belle, A United Kingdom). It’s an overwhelming and damning portrait of a nation in the grip of hatred, violence and death, but what makes it unforgettable is the strength of one girl who clings to the power of decency and love in the face of depravity and doom.