TIFF 2018: Where Hands Touch, by David Bax
“There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.” That quote from James Baldwin opens Amma Asante’s Where Hands Touch. Baldwin was referring to America and Asante’s film takes place in Nazi Germany. We hardly need a reminder these days, though, that the two societies aren’t so far apart. Once again, Asante has made a film in a historical setting that we, in many cases subconsciously, associate with whiteness. Though lacking much of the grace and strength of Belle, Asante’s crowning achievement to date, Where Hands Touch is another stirring reminder that people of many, varied backgrounds have lived, felt, loved and suffered throughout history.
Amandla Stenberg gives a luminous performance as Lena, a German girl born to a white mother and a black father, the latter a soldier who has since returned to his home country. As things become more and more dire for non-Aryans in Hitler’s Germany, Lena’s mother (Abbie Cornish) does her best to keep her daughter alive. Meanwhile, Lena falls for an older boy (George MacKay) whose own father (Christopher Eccleston) is prodding him up the ranks of the Hitler Youth.
Asante once again prefers a classical aesthetic and structural approach to her material, which proves to be a strong choice (as it did with Belle) because it highlights how rare stories like Lena’s are in cinema. As a writer, Asanta excels at achieving absolute narrative coherence without ever dealing in flagrant exposition. She ought to teach a course, honestly.
MacKay’s Lutz nearly becomes a second protagonist but only because Asante uses him as such a strong foil for Lena. With both characters, she asks us to look at what form self-preservation takes. For Lutz, privileged with white skin and blond hair, the question is how much of a blind eye can he turn and, eventually, how complicit can he be before he himself is damned. But for Lena, the situation is of course more tragic. We’re invited to ponder just how much of her innocence, her humanity, her very self she can sacrifice to stay alive. While we don’t doubt that Lutz loves Lena, it’s clear that his version of self-preservation boils down to cowardice and hers to bravery.
With the ascendancy of far right, white ethnic nationalism, not just in America, but in the Western world as a whole, it’s clear these struggles aren’t relegated to the past. Asante recognizes this and shines a light on it when, while listening to Billie Holiday, Lena and Lutz comment on how Lena’s prospects in America, where she could face a lynch mob, would not be much improved. Where Hands Touch reaches its greatest heights when we realize that Lena, just like so many black American civil rights activists who fought and were killed, still loves her country for what it can be, if not for what it is. She’s as proud of her German blood as the Nazis who want to kill her are of theirs. Her pride is not small and base, though, because it doesn’t come with malice. Which makes her a better German than any of them.