When the music swells for the first time in Amma Asante’s “Where Hands Touch,” it is to give the film’s star Amandla Stenberg an entrance befitting of a movie star, the way you might see Ingrid Bergman turn towards the camera in “Casablanca” for the first time, only in the case of Stenberg’s Leyna, it isn’t to create the heightened sensation of cinematic ecstasy, but to elevate her simply to ground level. Ascending from the basement where she’s been hidden by her mother (Abbie Cornish) when the gestapo come around their home in Rudesheim, Germany in 1944, Leyna doesn’t share the white skin that allows her or her young brother Sebastian (Ethan Rouse) to stay upstairs, nor should she technically be at risk being born and bred in Germany. Yet as one of thousands of Rhineland children of mixed race, born when French-African troops occupied Western Germany during World War I, she does not share the same standing as any other German citizen.
By now, it has become obvious that Asante knows her history – both cinematically and otherwise – embarking on a project seemingly no less ambitious than August Wilson’s 10-play survey of 20th century African-American life, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” by revisiting true-life stories of mixed race couples throughout the ages. After traveling to 18th century England for “Belle” to tell the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who couldn’t easily be courted as the adopted biracial daughter of an upper crust white family, and 1940s Botswana for “A United Kingdom,” in which Seretse Khama, the rightful heir to the throne refused to don the crown if he couldn’t bring along his white British wife Ruth Williams, Asante’s third film down this particular path is in many ways her boldest yet, casting a critical eye on how superficialities such as race and nationality are used to divide while employing a cinematic sweep that not only establishes a worthiness to stand alongside the great historical epics that have come before, but to suggest how much has been absent from those narratives without the perspective Asante has.
While “Where Hands Touch” isn’t subtle about its aims, it’s exceptionally nuanced in conveying the conditions under which Leyna falls in love with Lutz (George MacKay), a member of the Hitler Youth patrolling Berlin where Leyna and her family have resettled. Though it’s natural to instantly recoil at the prospect of such a romance, Asante rewards those who don’t, drawing an intriguing parallel between Leyna and Lutz, both the children of single parents who use their privilege to protect them, with the former obtaining falsified papers from her brother-in-law testifying that Leyna has been sterilized — a government mandate to reside legally in theory, if not in practice — and the latter (Christopher Eccleston), a commandant who has put his son on foot patrol in the city rather than seeing him sent to the frontlines in Russia. Although the writer/director doesn’t ignore the evil that Lutz and his father serve, she is wise to humanize them, if for no other reason than to show that they may be as desperate to survive as Leyna and her mother, yet have the privilege of hiding in plain sight and they are ultimately defined by their human instincts rather than external markers, even if that includes turning a blind eye or being complicit in genocide.
What adds additional poignance to “Where Hands Touch” is that neither Leyna or Lutz have fully formed ideas of who they are when we meet them, though Stenberg and MacKay both give assured performances that underline how the couple give understanding to each other when so little else in the world around them makes sense. Keeping them together as their circumstances change requires some machinations that will lead one to wonder just how much to believe the film’s early “Based on a true story” admonition, but really one should save their disbelief for how Asante lays bare various hypocrisies connected to how people relate to one another based on appearances, using the dignified veneer usually associated with period pieces as its own deceptive layer on top of the ugliness that roils underneath. Still, what makes “Where Hands Touch” so provocative is that when Asante gets under the skin, it isn’t only to infuriate, but to find the connective tissue between us all, beautifully hopeful in illustrating that no matter how deep ignorance and hatred run, a shared humanity runs a little deeper.
“Where Hands Touch” will play at the Toronto Film Festival at the Scotiabank on September 10th at 2:45 pm and September 15th at 12:30 pm. It will also open in select theaters on September 14th.