9:00 am EST, February 15, 2017

‘Where Hands Touch’: A Holocaust love story sparks controversy, but is it in good hands?

Amandla Stenberg and Amma Asante team up to shed light on controversial ground.

Amma Asante adds to her already shining portfolio with a new film, Where Hands Touch: the love story of a mixed-race German girl and a Hitler Youth boy, starring Amandla Stenberg and George McKay, sparking a conversation about the importance — and the dangers — of Holocaust love stories.

Update (September 3, 2018): See the first trailer for the movie!

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Asante is a critically acclaimed director known for bringing beautiful and empowering diverse stories to screen. Her directorial debut, A Way of Life (2004), earned her a BAFTA Award for Special Achievement, and Belle (2013) stunned audiences with its beautiful yet eye-opening take on the role of a mixed-race woman in ending slavery in England. Her latest film, A United Kingdom, about a white British woman who marries a Prince from Botswana, has been in theaters since last week.

With a career devoted to telling such meaningful stories, it’s no surprise that her next film also touches on race, love, and history.

Where Hands Touch has been in the works for 10 years. It’s a romantic drama set in Nazi Germany, and stars Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg alongside George McKay, who starred in Captain Fantastic last year.

Stenberg, who 0plays the female lead, is no stranger to telling unique, diverse stories, especially about race and LGBTQ issues. Since The Hunger Games, she has been an outspoken advocate of intersectional feminism, especially for African American women, and even appeared in Beyoncé’s Lemonade last year. After blowing us away from the very beginning with her role as Rue five years ago, it will be fascinating to see her in a more mature role, grappling with a horrific historical period, the repercussions of which we are still feeling today.

McKay has also proven himself to be a talented actor, with an excellent performance as Bo in Captain Fantastic alongside Viggo Mortensen (whose role in the film earned him an Academy Award nomination). His unique mix of cunning stoicism and aching vulnerability will certainly make this new performance just as memorable.

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Where Hands Touch takes us to the little-explored ground of interracial relationships in World War II Germany, following a love story between a mixed-race German girl and the son of an SS Officer. In an interview with Variety, Asante said:

“It has been a passion of mine to tell this story for many years — to shine a light on the existence of German children of color who were forced to grow up under Hitler’s rule, labelled as ‘Rhineland bastards.’ Against this historical backdrop, Leyna and Lutz enter a rite of passage negotiating the path to true identity in a society that has turned in on itself and is eating its own tail. Completing this film brings together everything I am as filmmaker.”

But the First Look image sparked controversy across the internet as people began questioning the wisdom in portraying a Nazi as a love interest. This is not the first time this argument has been made; especially in romance fiction, authors have dealt with much backlash for romanticizing Nazis and taking ‘forbidden love’ one step too far. It’s an understandable concern — the last thing we need is to make fascism seem even slightly sympathetic, especially with such a recent period in history.

But Asante, hearing questions and concerns flood in about the nature of the film, responded via Instagram with a very well-worded speech:

I want assure you that this film does not romanticize Nazis in any way. (…) My passion has been to shine a light on the existence of the children of color who were born and raised under Hitler. These children were also persecuted and my wish has been to explore how black and bi-racial German identity was perceived and experienced under Nazi fascist rule. This girl’s experience sits alongside the Jewish experience and the experience of others who were persecuted. It looks at how Germany became Nazi Germany and slept walked itself into a disgusting and murderous state that resulted in it killing its own people and those of other countries. Leyna’s story (Amandla Stenberg) sits in this sad and terrifying context.

My reasons for making this film sit around my concerns of the current climate but also a continued and growing intolerance of racial and religious difference that we have all sensed for many years and which is becoming even worse now. As a filmmaker my wish is to center on bringing attention to this through my work. Amandla and I teamed together to shine a light on the hatred that Nazi Germany visited on Europe and to make a film that might contribute to the dialogue of how we fight this horrific racial and religious ignorance today along with the intolerances visited on the many other marginalized groups and intersections.

At the end of her comment, she added, “I want to explore the voices and experiences of the marginalized. By exploring the experiences of yesterday, we can hopefully be better prepared when ugliness and hatred heads our way, today.”

Stenberg also took to Tumblr to express her concern at the backlash the film is receiving, saying, “If you jump to conclusions and make generalizations about others out of fear, you are doing the same thing as the people you claim to morally oppose.”

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As common as World War II movies are, the truth is that we still haven’t learned enough from them. It’s questions such as “How did we let it happen?” and “What were we thinking?” that keep us returning to stories about the Holocaust. It’s a quiet, deep fear of humanity: the knowledge that as a species we are capable of committing such atrocities, or at the very least, look the other way when they are happening.

A movie that tackles these unexplored facts about the mixed-race population in Germany, and sees it from both the point of view of a victim of ethnic cleansing and a person with enough privilege to potentially turn a blind eye, is very, very significant. In extreme circumstances, unfortunately, all of us could potentially fill both roles in one way or another.

It’s important to acknowledge all victims of the Holocaust, and tell the stories that have not been told until now. And there’s a striking relevance to the journey of a privileged boy, affected by the vicious brainwashing forces of his surroundings, who comes to understand what he has been taught… and presumably chooses to resist it.

If anyone is prepared to tackle such an ambitious project, it’s Asante, backed by a cast of talented actors. She isn’t afraid to expose the nuances of these real situations; she unpacks them carefully and then skillfully puts them together. If Where Hands Touch has anywhere near as much love and care put into it as her other films, we probably have nothing to be concerned about.

Christopher Eccleston, best known for his role as the Ninth Doctor in Doctor Who, is also lined up to star in the film, which is set to premiere sometime later this year.

In the meantime, check out A United Kingdom, Asante’s biographical drama starring Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo, which is currently in theaters!

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