Set during World War II, the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided ‘Where Hands Touch’ depicts the relationship between a young biracial German woman and a Nazi soldier.
Kernel Rating: 2.5 (2.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 122 minutes Streaming on Direct TV starting December 6, 2018 and Hulu in March, 2019
Age Appropriate For: 14+. The film is set during World War II and depicts Germany during the war and Holocaust, and there are many elements here that are violent, brutal, and graphic. Characters are racist, sexist, and use the n-word; soldiers threaten people with violence and sexual abuse, force them to strip naked in the streets, and shoot and kidnap people; children are forced to join the Hitler Youth, where they practice shooting guns; and the concentration camps are shown, where there is nudity (you see naked women forced to strip for inspection and to bathe), illness, death, and murder. Numerous characters die throughout the film. There is also a teen romance, where characters kiss and lose their virginity to each other.
By Roxana Hadadi
An unlikely attraction between two opposites is a romance trope, and one that has been used over and over again in YA literature and film—Bella and Edward in “Twilight,” Katniss and Peeta in “The Hunger Games,” Tris and Four in “Divergent.” These pairings often serve to illuminate something unexpected about each individual (quiet Bella yearns to be immortal to be with her vampire boyfriend forever; the questioning Tris realizes that her inability to fit in anywhere means she’s transcended strict societal definitions, much like Four), and the same goes for the World War II-set “Where Hands Touch,” which attempts to navigate questions of racial and cultural identity but never quite clicks.
A young biracial German woman, Leyna (Amandla Stenberg, of “The Darkest Minds”) falls in love with a young Nazi soldier, Lutz (George MacKay), who is pledged to exterminate people who look just like her. It’s 1944 in Berlin, and Leyna’s white German mother is an outcast for giving birth to Leyna, who was fathered by a Senegalese soldier during World War II; strangers and soldiers alike accuse her of being impure. And the same, of course, goes for Leyna, who has a German name and a German accent but whose skin color and hair texture are unlike anyone else she knows.
She’s accustomed to being treated like an outcast, even though she insists that she’s just as German as everyone else, and her fortitude and beauty capture the eye of Lutz, whose father is a higher-up in the Nazi SS. Lutz has dreams of serving his country in the upcoming war and winning glory for his courage, but he doesn’t seem to truly grasp what that entails—he speaks confidently of killing, but the boasts feel more like braggadocio than reality. Still, Lutz and Leyna are pulled together, and a romance develops between the two of them that Leyna’s mother disapproves of and that Lutz’s father doesn’t know about.
As 1944 progresses, however, things begin to change quickly for Germany, and the effects of the war—in particular the labor and concentration camps—affect both Leyna and Lutz, and raises the question of whether their love for each other can survive.
It must be said: It feels a bit strange in 2018, when a resurgence of white nationalism has entered our public sphere, to watch a film in which a young Nazi soldier is treated sympathetically. Painting Lutz as a good guy isn’t the only, or even the main, narrative intention of “Where Hands Touch,” but so much of his personality is defined by being a young man dreaming of war, who doesn’t seem that fazed by the disappearing Jews until he can no longer ignore them, that it’s also quite incongruous to see him as a romantic lead.
That’s unfortunate because the real story that “Where Hands Touch” is trying to tell is Leyna’s. The film is inspired by the 25,000 biracial and black Germans who were targeted by Hitler for eradication because they went against his idea of a pure Aryan Germany, and that story should have been enough without a romantic subplot. As Leyna, Stenberg brings nuance and emotion to her performance as a young woman struggling with ostracization from strangers, classmates, and eventually people who claim to love her. She exudes exuberance and wonder in the beginning of the film when her relationship with Lutz is fresh, and yet as the months pass, she effectively becomes hardened and resilient, determined to stay alive in a camp that is only meant for death.
The story of children like Leyna and how they endured World War II should have been the entirety of “Where Hands Touch,” but the film’s depiction of a romance that normalizes Nazis is misplaced, negatively affecting a film that without it could have better explored questions of cultural and national identity.
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