A few weeks ago during TIFF, I had the opportunity to watch a screener of Where Hands Touch. I’m was glad, since I couldn’t go to TIFF. However, I was expecting tons of bad things from Where Hands Touch. You can read my two big rants on the film at my Twitter page, but to keep it short, my worry was that Amma Asante’s latest film would romanticize Nazism. I’m not the only person who had that fear, but of course, at the time, I and a number of people hadn’t seen the film yet.
I’ve now seen the film, and I can say that those who have defended the film are right in one respect–the film doesn’t romanticize Nazism as an ideology. However, what the film does do is what I think was at the root of what I and a lot of people were concerned about. Where Hands Touch might not romanticize or fetishize Nazism, but it does fetishize whiteness and blackness. To be extremely clear, it fetishizes the power involved in whiteness as a social construct as well as the powerlessness that comes with blackness as a social construct.
To that end, the film doesn’t accomplish its goal, which is to celebrate and honor the lives biracial Germans who were tortured and killed by Hitler, which is a shame, since according to her interview with IndieWire, Asante conducted tons of research including “further research at London’s Whelan Library and interviews with Black survivors of the Holocaust.” Asante herself wrote on her site about the amount of research she did, which included hiring a researcher to gather information from the United States Holocasut Museum, The Library of Congress, London’s Weiner Library, Israel’s Yad Vashem, and visits to concentration camps including Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. One of the consultants for the film, Prof. Eve Rosenhaft, is a scholar on black Germans during the war and wrote an article for Asante’s site.
Instead, the film decides to shoehorn in a romance between Lutz (George MacKay), a young man who is dedicated to the Nazi cause and has a high-ranking SS officer as a father, and Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), a biracial girl who wants to be seen as German instead of as less than. In the way the film presents the romance, it reveals a layers of problematic thinking when it comes to race, interracial romance, culture, and, most importantly, self worth and self-identity.
Love vs. Lust
One of the most puzzling aspects to me about Where Hands Touch was this idea of making a Nazi a love interest for a biracial girl who is being persecuted. I’ll be graceful in saying that I don’t know what the interview subjects told Asante about their experiences. I’m sure they have stories that would feel unbelievable, while being true. To be fair to the film, there are also real life examples of impossible love stories during the war, like the The Nazi Officer’s Wife, the autobiography of Edith Hahn Beer, a Jewish woman who married, as the title states, a Nazi officer. There’s also a 1939 article from The Atlantic called “I Married A Jew” by an anonymous woman. The writer details how she comes from an “Aryan” American family, but fell in love with a Jewish man, something both families were against. Interestingly enough, there’s a part in the article that explains why Where Hands Touch doesn’t work as a love story.
“Consequently, our marriage was not the hasty, impassioned leap of two people soaring on the Icarian wings of a first love,” she wrote after stating that she and her husband Ben had waited two years in secret while Ben earned enough to support a family. “That which was between us was as calm as the night, deep as the sea; in the light of it we both knew that forever afterwards he would look upon other women, and I upon other men, as pale wraiths.”
From the writer’s words, it would seem their love was one both individuals studied, meditated on, and worked with slowly before realizing they were in it for the long haul. Their love also seems less predicated on race and ethnicity and more on actual true love. In fact, when the writer’s mother tries to talk her out of marrying Ben, the writer replies to her mother, “That makes not a whit of difference, to me…I love Ben. I’d marry him if he were a Hottentot.”
Meanwhile, Lutz and Leyna’s love isn’t actually love. It’s purely lust, and worse, it’s fetish-based lust. For Lutz, it’s clear that his only interest in Leyna is her race. He grew up listening to his father illegally playing Billie Holiday on the record player, and her image on the album cover is the closest contact he’s ever had to a black woman. He’s more entranced with Holiday’s looks and her voice instead of her character, and that same interest is projected onto Leyna. She’s not a well-rounded character in the film as it is, but in the eyes of Lutz, she’s even less pronounced. She’s only heightened in the most disgusting of ways–as an exotic object of desire.
Leyna, on the other hand, fetishizes Lutz’s whiteness. Throughout the film, Leyna tries beyond reason to fit into a society that will never fully accept her. Like an idiot, she tries to join the Hitler Youth parade, only to be mocked and derided by the other kids. Throughout the film, she’s called a monkey and other racial slurs, sees people who have shown her kindness get killed or carted away, and even her own brother, who was currently under the sway of what the Hitler Youth were teaching him, called her a dog. And still, she tries to assert not just her Germanic pride, but Nazi pride. How she got to that point is beyond me, and it doesn’t make sense for a character who has been persecuted since childhood.
While there are examples of Nazi soldiers doing things antithetical to their views, it is hard to humanize a Nazi character period. There is just too much at stake to attempt to try. Art isn’t just something that exists in a vacuum; it’s something that affects how we view the world; it teaches us even when we think we aren’t being taught. In terms of social responsibility, it seems like a fool’s errand because you could end up doing more harm than good, especially in times of political polarization like these.
But, if a director wanted to take on the challenge, it would make the most sense to tell a story that actually happened. Beer’s story could be adapted to film. I’m sure it’d be a compelling film, showing the layers of hypocrisy within the ranks of the SS officers, as well as Beers’ own emotional turmoil of marrying a man who could have literally been her oppressor. With a real story, you can get the true colors to a person’s life. At the very least, you can back yourself up by saying, “This is based on a real woman’s life.”
But it doesn’t do anyone any good to not only create a contrived relationship, but to also render the relationship useless and uncomfortable. Do I need to see Lutz singing Billie Holiday? Am I supposed to instantly fall in love with him now? Am I supposed to champion him as a “woke king” just because he knows a black woman’s song? Are we supopsed to invite him to the proverbial “cookout” because he has a fetish for black women and loves a black woman’s voice? Is this what Asante is asking of me? If so, I refuse. I refuse wholeheartedly.
The right and wrong way to showcase self-pride
I must digress more on Leyna’s constant assertions of her Germanness. The film wants us to believe the notion that Leyna wants Germany to see her as a national, as a child of fatherland. But she goes about this in the most asinine ways possible–Leyna wanting to join the Hitler Youth and hear Hitler speak. Leyna asserting at one point that there’s a such thing as “a good Jew,” blindly repeating the same racist rhetoric that keeps her subjugated in her own country. Sure, Asante might be trying to make the subtle point that even those who are persecuted in society can hold their own biases. But in my view, Leyna’s hypocrisy dulls the message Asante is trying to make.
Of course, I don’t know anything Asante’s interviewees told her about their experiences. It could very well be that some people did grow up with a double-think mentality as kids. However, for a film to delve into that kind of nuance, the script itself must be able to properly unpack and analyze that mental weight. Where Hands Touch comes nowhere close to dealing with that in a nuanced way, since the film itself is full of plotholes, particularly with how it does dramatize the concentration camp Leyna is eventually dragged to, with the adjacent death camp, where the smoke and ashes from Jewish victims floating in the air, used as disturbing set dressing.
How Leyna comes off isn’t as a complicated figure. Instead, she comes off as a person who can’t seem to ever comprehend that Hitler’s Germany views her as subhuman, something that’s supremely frustrating since, if you’re a minority in a country, odds are you will eventually figure out what your country thinks about you and reckon with it somehow. Irritatingly, Leyna never has this reckoning until it’s absolutely too late, and even then, it could be argued that she still never reckons with her country’s crimes enough, since her unborn child, a biracial person like her, is positioned as the proof that “true love” can rectify any wrongs and cross any barriers. It’s the myth that biracial and multiracial people can solve the world’s racial ills, a myth that has been disproven over and over again and adds unnecessary baggage and fetish to the biracial identity.
Yes, Leyna’s been raised in a predominately white, predominately Nazi environment, but her mother (Abbie Cornish) has done her best to teach Leyna and her little brother Koen (Tom Sweet) right from wrong. Leyna, however, seems to disregard everything her mother is telling her in order for her to be safe. Leyna even goes so far as to get angry with her mother for having relations with her father, a French-African soldier. In short, Leyna became angry at her mother for making her a biracial girl. It’s not much different than when an SS officer verbally defiles Leyna’s mother for having an interracial relationship.
Leyna wants to be seen as a whole person, but the question I’m having is what does she equate a whole person with. For Leyna, what does being German mean? Is it solely about nationality? Or does it have to do with the racial power people like Lutz are afforded? Since she sees herself as better than Jewish people, does she view herself as Aryan simply by virtue of being born German? Does she disregard the fact that the Jewish people who Hitler persecuted were also German-born like her, and that Hitler viewed racial, ethnic and religious minorities as parts of the same “German problem”? I feel like Where Hands Touch wants us to feel like it’s a film that’s dabbling in the gray areas of identity, which can include some unsavory aspects, depending on the person and their life experiences. However, the film fails at fully exploring anything concerning the multifaceted emotions that come with identity and instead focuses primarily on Leyna’s obsession with whiteness and Nazism as a way to prove her Germanness.
Where the film’s message fails
What Where Hands Touch is at its core is a film focusing not just on self-identity, but the concept of self-worth. How do we define our worth and love for ourselves? Do we negate certain aspects of ourselves in order to be deemed as acceptable? These are questions that the film tries to hint at, but never fully investigates, and it’s to the film’s detriment.
I would have loved a film about biracial Germans during Nazi Germany, seeing how it’s a part of history that has been buried over time. I would have loved to see a protagonist battle for her right to survive on the grounds of wanting to be accepted for all of who she is, not just the “German” parts of her. A protagonist I would have loved to see would be someone who wanted the Nazi regime to topple, not become someone who inadvertently supported them in order to feel even a false level of acceptance. My protagonist also wouldn’t have fallen in love with a Nazi or deemed Jewish people, people who are persecuted like her, to be in “good” and “bad” categories.
Of course, the film wants us to know that there are no perfect people, and even in film, there don’t have be perfect heroes. However, with such a film as Where Hands Touch, and with the times we are living in, with the alt-right being validated by our current president, it would have made a much stronger point if the film focused on the plight of biracial Germans without a Nazi love interest. It would have become a much stronger, more resonant film if it focused on Leyna fighting for her whole self, not just her white German privilege.