Amma Asante resurrected a whole generation that had been forgotten. The British-Ghanaian director known for period films about the Afro-European experience (Belle and A United Kingdom) shines a light on the Rhineland children of Nazi Germany in her newest film, Where Hands Touch.
"I found a picture," Asante told Broadly about the project that delves into the experience of a select group of children who were put into work camps during Hitler's occupation of Germany in the 1940s. "I saw a picture online of a little girl who was Afro-German standing with her white classmates. She was just literally surrounded by white supremacy... When I had done enough research, I found my way to Afro-German survivors in the period and traveled to Berlin and other parts of Germany, and sat down and interviewed them and recorded my interviews."
In the movie, Amandla Stenberg plays Leyna, a teenager of French-Senegalese and German descent whose entire world is rocked by the Third Reich takeover of Berlin. Amidst internal issues of identity and patriotism, Leyna falls in love with Lutz (George MacKay), a soldier in Hitler's army, creating a compelling and controversial storyline.
When the trailer for the film dropped, there was a huge backlash from those who believe the topic, timing, and romanticism of falling in love with someone in a white nationalist organization was in poor taste. But Asante contends that the film is not simply a love story, but a story about the tested bond between Leyna, her mother (Abbie Cornish), and her brother (Ethan Rouse).
"The test of those bonds is really very much what this film is about whilst we watch Leyna exist and survive in the most intense meaning of that world; of the war, rather," Asante said. "We watch a child survive and understand that she's doing it without community, and for any of us who have been through any form of persecution, of any form of marginalization, we understand that to do so without a community makes it all the tougher."
Stenberg, who is biracial and has spoken publicly about being extremely conscious of the acting roles she chooses —even turning down a role in Black Panther— was intrigued by the story because of this unconventional love story.
"I don't see that many historical references or explorations of what it is to live in a biracial identity, especially in history," the 19-year-old told Broadly. "That was just incredible to me from the jump, that I could see myself in the story, but I think what's really remarkable about Leyna's story is how she begins with all of these internalized notions around race and belonging, and rejects her other nation [French-Senegalese] because she's just trying to be a part of the community."
Adding, "You see her grow from a child who has a somewhat limited perception of herself, and the complexity of her identity move from a much lower level of understanding to having all of those perceptions challenged when she is confronted with the reality of this monstrosity of public, terrible event that has happened."
While the dynamics of being Black in Nazi Germany—while having a white family and a boyfriend in Hitler's army—can't possibly be fully fleshed out in a two-hour film, Asante does cast attention on the complexity of love in periods of persecution.
"I think when you live in any sort of intersection of identity, you are always accepting the ways in which you belong and how those intersections shift, and how your sense of belonging shifts, depending on so many different factors," said Stenberg.
"Something that challenges us most often is your nation and your country, and what questions does your nationality raise when you find yourself in a position of persecution?"