A Short Conversation About What the Hell Is Going on in Where Hands Touch

where hands touch movie
Alexa, play “neegah music.” Photo: Tantrum Films

At the climax of Where Hands Touch, a historical fiction romance that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, two lovers lock eyes. Panic engulfs a Nazi concentration camp, and Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), a black young woman, rushes to embrace Lutz (George MacKay), her lover. She’s a prisoner and he’s a Nazi guard. Holocaust victims race around them, running to safety, but everything goes in slow motion so these lovebirds can have Their Moment. It’s like Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy rushing to kiss — pantsless and in the snow — in Bridget Jones’s Diary, except profoundly more chilling. It raises the question: How did we make it here, to a story that finds romance in a black German girl falling in love with a Nazi during the Holocaust. What has the swirl-industrial complex wrought!

The authority on all things Where Hands Touch is Haaniyah Angus, who livetweeted while watching the movie earlier this week when it became available to stream and documented the drama’s troubles. Some brief background, for those unfamiliar: Leyna is the only black daughter of Abbie Cornish-with-bleached-eyebrows, and the single mother moves her family to Berlin because it seems safer than their home in the Rhineland. After a meet-cute where Lutz nearly runs Leyna over with his bike, the two teens start a torrid affair, sneaking off to kiss and swim and live out an anti-Semitic, nationalist romance until Leyna — secretly pregnant — is taken to a Nazi labor camp. Here, Angus and Vulture’s Hunter Harris talk through this domestic disaster.

Hunter: Haaniyah, thank you so much for joining us on this — a blessed day! — to discuss a truly cursed cinematic experience. I think the first time I heard of Where Hands Touch was through your thread, which I really enjoyed. I have to know: What made you choose to stand on the front lines for all of us and watch this movie?

Haaniyah: I first heard about Where Hands Touch through social media around 2016? I feel like I can say that for most of us we were not here for it when the project and its premise were announced. It honest to God has felt like this ongoing battle between Black Twitter and the BFI (British Film Institute) for producing this film.

Hunter: I read your thread when I was on the J train, running late to the office. I truly felt like I’d stumbled upon a gold mine: I could feel you lose touch with reality as the movie continued. It’s not just that the plotting kept getting more confusing — a black German girl falls in love with a thin-lipped Nazi — but somehow it’s not even very romantic or sexy? Lutz pulls up on Leyna in the woods and his big line — the line he’s using to hit on her — is that his Nazi dad listens to Billie Holiday records, and he likes to put his ear to the floor to hear them, too. It is from this scene that you introduced the internet to … “nigga music!”

But I think I’m getting ahead of myself. Reading your tweets about the “nigga music” scene was the first major red flag. Not only was this movie bizarre, but it was bonkers, too, it really made me want to pump the brakes and alert the appropriate authorities. When did you know that this movie was going off the rails. Was there a particular scene?

Haaniyah: Oh God, there are so many scenes that made me physically cringe. But I think the worst is when her little white brother (whose existence is never explained) says that her father was black “head to toe.” I don’t know why, but that piece of dialogue just made me want to curl up in a ball and scream. Other than that, I think the scene where a Hitler Youth rally takes place in front of Leyna’s apartment and for some reason her first logical thought is, Oh, I’ll go hang with the li’l Nazis. As most would guess, they aren’t happy to see a black girl, and then proceed to call her a nigga. It’s just so much at once …

Hunter: We will get back to the nigga discourse at some point. However, we have really buried the lede here. WHAT is HAPPENING to the eyebrows of Leyna’s mom, Miss Abbie Cornish? Why were they bleached??

In the New York Times review, their critic said, “By the end of the movie, my jaw felt unhinged from dropping so often.” It only makes sense for us to rank this movie’s many twists, in order of how loudly I screamed (when I hosted an extremely unofficial screening at my apartment with two of my friends), or how many times I almost spilled the glass of wine I was sipping. My ranking would go like this, in order of what made me whisper “Oh no, oh no!” to what elicited the loudest screech!

- Leyna getting pregnant with Nazi Bae’s baby

- Leyna’s mom giving herself up to be arrested, and the arresting SS officer calling her a “black man’s whore”

- Nazi Bae’s death, by his father

- Leyna remaining a pretty ardent German nationalist throughout this whole movie, even suggesting that her only friend in the Nazi labor camp really should be executed for being Jewish.

Haaniyah: Neegah music. That’s the scene that made me pause the film and yell into my pillow. However, if I had to rank them, my top-three moments would be:

- Neegah music

- Lutz getting shot after the rom-com camp scene

- Leyna snitching on the Jewish lady running from the Nazis

There’s just so much going on at once, and even though I’ve seen the film twice now, it still feels like a huge muddle of events just sloppily stitched together with editing.

Hunter: The director, Amma Asante, has made movies about interracial couples before, and usually sets them somewhere back in history. But Where Hands Touch feels different because this is the least interesting story to tell about World War II: Why do we need this story of forbidden love? A black girl and a Nazi sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g! (Not that I’m asking for more, but it seems like a hilarious miscalculation that we get only one sex scene in this, and it’s more uncomfortable than sexy.)

The characters’ politics seem specious: Nazi Bae has to work at a labor camp before he starts to think that maybe Germany is on the losing side of this and they should bounce, but his black, pregnant girlfriend is the one trying to persuade him that they shouldn’t desert the German cause. What??

Also, and not to nitpick, but once they’re reunited in the camp, it takes him way too long to realize that she’s pregnant.

Haaniyah: I mentioned it on Twitter already, but the idea of having a “romance” set to this background is absurd in its own right. But the fact that he’s Nazi Bae makes it even weirder. Many have argued that because of Asante’s old films with interracial couples that she may be pigeonholed into this “genre” of sorts, but my question is, Why on earth isn’t the male lead Jewish? Like, I feel that would be the easiest fix for this mess.

Getting back to your point on politics, Leyna is suspiciously anti-Semitic for a black person being persecuted by Nazis. She mentions that her friend who gets shot up was a “good Jew,” and when Nazi Bae starts going on about Jewish people plotting against the Aryan race, she stays silent — almost as if she agrees. Having the lead male be Jewish wouldn’t only take away the Nazi of it all, but also help make her own views make sense. Leyna shouldn’t be so divorced from her blackness and her compassion for those suffering under the Reich.

And, yes, he takes such a long time to realize she’s with child — like, Leyna is SKINNY, but suddenly her stomach can’t be seen? Make it make sense!

Hunter: Okay, but now I want tea. What happened to you as your thread went viral? I’m still screaming that Asante blocked you!

Haaniyah: If you would’ve told me last year that three directors would block me in one night I’d think you’d be making shit up. The reaction was so divided. At one point it felt as if the entirety of Twitter had my back, but then the subtweets came in. After I told people Amma blocked me, I was accused of “bullying” her for my review, and that I was too harsh on the film that HUMANIZED Nazis.

It’s just this weird idea that we have in the film industry, specifically the British film industry, where we can’t call out BS when we see it. People are too afraid to be honest, and thus we create this weird area where harmful art can exist and be praised. On top of that, I was told that it was unfair that I was calling Amma out, as WOC get barely any roles, scripts, or good opportunities within Hollywood. Yes, the rep for WOC within the film industry is minimal, but that doesn’t mean we should accept the lowest bar of representation.

Hunter: Haaniyah, we could go on about what Asante should — or shouldn’t — do next, but frankly, I think the only appropriate way to end this conversation about a truly wretched experience is with our favourite Nazi Swirl Movie memes. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!

Haaniyah: The memes honestly almost made this whole thing worth it. This has to be by far my favorite.

Let’s Talk About What the Hell Happens in Where Hands Touch