Yes, there were black people in Nazi Germany. So “Where Hands Touch” is a World War II drama on solid ground, historically.
And the film does not trivialize or otherwise dilute The Holocaust in remembering that along with six million Jews, hundreds of thousands of Romani (Gypsies), Slavs and Afro-Germans and “Mischling” (mixed blood) and members of other ethnic minorities were rounded up and herded into camps to “purify” the Master Race.
But get past the “You learn something every day” aspect of writer-director Amma Asante’s follow-up to “Belle” and “A United Kingdom,” and the picture grates and annoys and falls to pieces, and not quietly.
It’s so wrong. And there’s so much of it.
Amandla Stenberg (“Everything, Everything”) plays another dewy-eyed romantic as Leyna, one of Germany’s so-called “Rhineland Bastards,” born to a German mother (Abbie Cornish) and an Afro-French father she never knew, part of the occupation force in the contested Rhineland in the years after World War I.
She is forever talking about how “German” she is, how proud of that. But Germany, even in the middle of a war, doesn’t want her or millions of its other citizens.
Her mother’s solution? Hide in plain sight. Move from the Rhineland to Berlin. Send her to school, where she’s held up by racist teachers as a national embarrassment.
Leyna is 16 in the spring of 1944, and as much as she and her mother want her to “be like everyone else,” she isn’t. And the endless demands for “Your PAPERS” should warn her and her mother about keeping a low profile.
The Russians are pushing towards Der Vaterland from the East and the other Allies are about to mount D-Day in the West. But those officious Germans have their priorities. Berlin’s last Jews are being rounded up. Leyna sees a friendly baker boy murdered, right in front of her.
Lutz (George MacKay of “Captain Fantastic”) is a loyal member of the Hitler Youth eager to do his part in the military, “to fight, to stand up for Germany like my father did.” His officer/father (one-time Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston) isn’t having it.
Eccleston gets a nice World War I veteran’s speech about learning the futility of war, and how Lutz’s main task in this war is to make sure he survives it. Father knows best.
But then Lutz sees Leyna, standing out in the crowd. And all of Dad’s Billie Holiday records flash before his eyes. He is smitten and all bets on “surviving the war” are off as they begin a forbidden romance, not unlike the one Leyna’s mother embraced 16 years earlier.
Leyna may hear that she’s “the best of everything,” being of mixed race. That’s not what her culture and her country tell her. And even though there’s little sign of the war — intact factories and neighborhoods (Isle of Man locations), spotless newish clothes, no war wounded walking the streets — the clock is ticking on her life and liberty, such as they are. If only she and her mother could read the obvious clues.
Assante aimed to strike another blow for love that crosses artificial barriers here. But turning Lutz into a romantic Nazi is a stretch. Suggesting his widowed father values him above all else is muddled, too. And Stenberg’s girl’s-first-crush take on Leyna is shockingly myopic, romance novel mush, and utterly tone-deaf.
The couple’s every scene together makes eyes roll as they tapdance around the biggest issues to talk about jazz and follow their hormones. Yeah, teens are like this, no matter what is going on around them (Read “The Diary of Anne Frank”). But Assante’s antiseptic, romanticized view of war through the lens of love doesn’t work as drama or romance.
The accents are Community Theater-“Sound of Music” amateurish, the dialogue varying shades of drivel.
Stenberg is wise to seek films that take her away from these objectified, moony romances where boys pine for her on first sight. The films are insipid and some of that falls on her callow, gooey way of playing these innocent objects of desire. The upcoming “The Hate You Give” is her big chance to escape this genre.
But the adult in the room, Assante, takes the big hit here. She can put Lenya in peril and stick her in a concentration camp as the film goes on and on, struggling to gain gravitas. The longer it lasts, the more insipid “Where Hands Touch” gets.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence/disturbing images, sexuality and language
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston
Credits: Written and directed by Amma Assante. A Vertical release.
Running time: 2:02