Amandla Stenberg really likes her political movies. With The Hate U Give having come out earlier this year (which looked at modern-day police oppression against the black community in the United States), Where Hands Touch showcases that same oppressive nature back further to the 1940s during World War II Germany.
Where Hands Touch is a close-up look at the after-effects of World War I, the results of the interbreeding that occurred while soldiers were stationed in occupied countries. Specifically, the film looks at what are known as the "Rhineland Bastards", a derogatory term for Afro-Germans fathered by French soldiers of African descent while stationed in the occupied Rhineland. The bi-racial children born from those couplings became targets for Hitler and the Nazis who were striving for a “pure” Germany and saw this introduction of African blood as a contamination of the pure Aryan bloodlines.
Following Leyna (played by Amandla Stenberg), an African/German bi-racial child who, born and raised in Germany has immense pride in a country that does not reciprocate, the audience watches as she falls for a young boy from the Hitler Youth and they are both invariably drawn into war.
The timing of this release is quite odd, with the rise in Alt-Right and Neo-Nazi movements at present. So to have a film that effectively romanticizes and humanizes members of this fascist group, it’s needless to say, a little unsettling to see this notion that “good” people were involved in this regime that massacred millions of Jews, minorities, and people with disabilities. The decision to take the direction of a romance at all is intriguing, though is surprisingly popular these days; where an oppressed woman falls in love with her oppressor, in some Stockholm syndrome fiasco.
Ignoring all of the choices in script direction, the romance is well constructed and is reminiscent of the schoolyard crushes that can develop into something more. With beautiful blue skies and beams of light shooting through the forested areas, there is a warmth and intimacy that envelopes the two. Stenberg absolutely crushes it with performance in all of the positive aspects of the film. The devoted sister and daughter, the reckless lover, she has a youthfulness and naivety that really brings her character to life.
Unfortunately, when the tone of the film is meant to shift, the cinematography style and Stenberg’s performance fail to change with it. In an environment that is meant to feel hostile and inhospitable, scenes are shot with an air of wonder, and it takes away from the impact of what we are really seeing on screen. The period set designs and costuming looks authentic, but the emotions and gravity of the situation are not so genuine. It feels more like a bad day at work, and not a life or death situation during a war.
As far as set-up and character development, Where Hands Touch does a brilliant job. You really feel like you are in Berlin during World War II, and in the second act you can really feel the tension as the Nazi’s begin to close in, but the third act doesn’t carry that emotional awareness on. It was intriguing to learn that Hitler had a form of hierarchy of hatred, where some minority groups had a form of ranking, but again the threat was not genuinely there for our protagonist. Beautifully set-up, with a youthful romance story, but it faltered in the final act and left me underwhelmed.
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