Where Hands Touch

WHERE HANDS TOUCH,  UK, 2018. Starring Amandla Stenberg, George Mackay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston. Directed by Amma Asante. 122 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, violence, hudity and sex scene).

Some years ago there was a concentration camp film, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, focusing on two young boys, one from the family of the concentration commander, the other an inmate. At the time, there were mixed feelings about such a film, especially its emotional impact, too soft a story for such a significant episode in world history, while others thought it communicated the horror with its focus on the friendship of the two children and their fate.

There has been something of a similar reaction to Where Hands Touch. This time the focus is on love between a 16-year-old girl and a young man, a Nazi soldier, their life in Berlin, their finally being together in the concentration camp. Again, this film is not a serious analysis of the evil – rather, it is a literally touching story, in name as well as in emotional impact.

There is also a background that is not familiar to us – information given at the end that there were many children and young adults of German mothers and of African fathers, born in the 1920s living in Germany. The central character here is Leyna, one such child, living with her mother and smaller brother, taking refuge in 1944 in Berlin. On the one hand, this is a more quiet Berlin than we are used to in war years, not bombardments. Rather, a Berlin of menace, peaceful-seeming, homes, schools, shops – but the continued presence of Nazi officers, of threats in the street, of sudden executions, of the burning of papers by malicious officials.

A great strength of the film is the performance by Amandla Stenberg (so impressive in many films, especially The Hate U Give. She is a strong screen presence destined for many more significant film roles. She and her brother have been protected by their mother (Australia’s Abbie Cornish), even getting documents to say that she has been sterilised so that there is no risk of pregnancy and her being accused later of miscegenation. The small brother has to join the Hitler youth, ambiguous feelings developing about his sister and racial issues.

Lutz, George McKay, accidentally knocks into Leyna with his bike. He is attracted, later follows her, they talk, fall in love. He is a patriotic young man who longs to go to fight on the front. And she herself continually declares that she is German, never wanting to talk French, the language of her father. Lutz is under the command of his father, Christopher Eccleston, who fought in World War I and wants to protect his son.

The film inevitably moved towards tragedy, the arrest of the mother, Leyna rounded up and sent to a camp where some of the inmates insult her racially, where she is protected in the kitchen by the Kapo, and where, as we know, she will meet Lutz again – just as the war is coming to an end and American troops are on the way to free the concentration camps.

So, this is a film of feelings, being touched, with both tragedy and its sadness, and some moments of joy.

It is not the last word, the last film, on the Holocaust – while vividly showing the persecution of the Jews, looking at a different racial minority and the Nazi response.

The director is the British Amma Assante whose films Belle (racial issues and slavery in 18 century Britain) and A United Kingdom (about the King of Botswana in the 1940s and 1950s) were both moving and significant.

Rialto                                         Released April 4th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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