Where Hands Touch
Abbie Cornish, Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Christopher Eccleston
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The performances are affecting, particularly George MacKay… deft direction…
Filmmaker Amma Assante’s sophomore feature Belle explored issues of mixed-race families, racism, class and identity within the historical context of 18th century England. Her next film A United Kingdom also explored similar themes. However, in her latest film, she once again draws on these themes but sets it in a historical milieu that’s difficult territory to navigate: World War Two and The Holocaust.
The movie begins in 1944, in the painterly-looking town of Rüdesheim, in the Rhine Valley. The Rhineland people of colour include those derisively referred to as ‘Rhineland bastards”, who’d been fathered by French soldiers of African background, during the Rhineland’s occupation in the period following World War I.
Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) is one of these children. Her white German mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish) feels the pinch from local Gestapo hounding her family for identification papers and after seeing their neighbours carted off in the middle of the night, fears for her own family. So, the family moves to Berlin in the erroneous hope that there might be safety in numbers in the big city.
In Berlin, Leyna meets Hitler Youth member Lutz (George MacKay), who along with his secret Jazz music listening SS commander father (Christopher Eccleston), both secretly detest the war, conceal their pacifist leanings by towing the Nazi Party line and long for a life away from the horrors of reality. It’s this pacifist side that Lutz displays to Leyna and soon the pair falls for each other. Inevitably, cruel fate intervenes and Leyna is sent to a brutal workers camp, where she must find it in herself to endure, not only for her own sake but for her family’s as well.
The performances are affecting, particularly George MacKay who portrays a difficult character and imbues him with an awkward, diffident humanity. The film was shot on the UK’s Isle of Man, standing in for 1940s Germany so it does at times fall prey to its budgetary constraints, though the painterly cinematography and stylised production design helps give the proceedings a fable-like quality, particularly in the later scenes in the workers camp.
Assante’s deft direction has steered many of her films through plots that involve tricky racial and social minefields. Here, it’s particularly inflammatory due to the nature of the film’s romantic angle, between a ‘Nazi’ and a mixed-race German girl, though the ‘Nazi’ is merely a Hitler Youth, and a sensitive, conflicted pacifist at that.
US media has been bafflingly unkind in its lambasting of the socio-political optics of the film, with a reading of the plot that is patently reductive and reactionary. One of the film’s admirable qualities is presenting complex characters questioning their own actions, and showing us individuals who sometimes act in spite of their own closely held beliefs and others who act according to them, in other words: flawed human beings.