Where Hands Touch

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Where Hands Touch Movie Poster Image
Brutal violence, death, history in agonizing Holocaust tale.
  • PG-13
  • 2018
  • 122 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Messages such as "all people should be treated equally" and "intolerance can lead to terrible consequences" are underlined in scenes where despised people are mistreated in ways both small and terrible. Perseverance is also a strong theme.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Leyna and her mother demonstrate courage and compassion, particularly when the mother sends her son off to (compulsory) Hitler Youth service by explaining that she hopes he remembers the kindness he learned at home. Most Nazi soldiers are presented as unflinchingly cruel, but Lutz tries to help Leyna under very difficult circumstances. 

Violence

Extremely disturbing violence: People, including screaming women and crying/shrieking small children, are rounded up, taken away by uniformed soldiers. They're shot point-blank for "crimes" such as being Jewish (a man is forced to strip on the street; the Nazis mock his circumcised penis) or not having shoes. Blood speckles the face of those around victims, and viewers see dead bodies on the ground, with spreading pools of blood. Ashes of burned prisoners. Prisoners are beaten, abused, starved, murdered. Young boys shoot targets with machine guns, laugh about how they're killing black people or "unwashed Englishmen." Characters viewers have grown to like are killed suddenly and unexpectedly. 

Sex

In one scene, a couple has sex, with thrusting and moaning; the man is visible nude from the side (no private parts shown). Other scenes of nonsexual nudity: Women in a labor camp are bathed and shaved by their captors, with breasts and backsides visible.

Language

Cursing/iffy language includes "ass," "bastards" (referring to children born to unmarried couples), "whore." Racist language is common, with Leyna called a "monkey," "Negro," "sickening," a "savage," a "mischling." Reference to jazz being "the 'N' word music."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Two characters smoke cigarettes in a few scenes; their smoking isn't glamorized. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Where Hands Touch is a drama about a multiracial German girl (Amandla Stenberg) during World War II who becomes a target of Nazi aggression yet falls in love with a young Nazi soldier (George MacKay). As in many Holocaust stories, violence is unrelenting and very upsetting. Nazis drag screaming women and children away in vans, a man is shot point-blank after he's made to strip on the street and his circumcised penis is seen (not by the audience), soldiers invade houses, and a sense of menace and terror is pervasive. Scenes set in a concentration camp show gaunt, abused prisoners shuffling through their days and occasionally being beaten or murdered for such crimes as stealing a potato or not having shoes. Viewers see them being shot, as well as their bloody injuries and blood speckling the faces of those nearby. Sympathetic characters are suddenly and unexpectedly killed, and the ashes of burned prisoners are seen in large quantities. Language is strong/cruel: The main character is called a "bastard," "monkey," "sickening," and a "savage," and she's said to have a "stench." The "N" word is heard repeatedly. A couple kisses, holds hands, and eventually has sex, with thrusts and moaning; the male partner is shown nude from the side, but his private parts aren't visible. Nonsexual nudity includes glimpses of the breasts and buttocks of women in a concentration camp. Two characters smoke cigarettes. All of this said, the movie has strong themes of courage, compassion, and perseverance and underlines the idea that all people should be treated equally.

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What's the story?

WHERE HANDS TOUCH tells the story of 15-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), the daughter of a black African father and a white German mother (Abbie Cornish). Like other WWII-era Germans who are multiracial/of color, Leyna is hunted by the Nazis, who see her dark skin as a mark against the "purity" of the German race. Trying to fly under the radar, Leyna and her family move to liberal Berlin -- where Leyna meets Lutz (George MacKay), a Hitler Youth leader and son of a Nazi official (Christopher Eccleston). Their attraction immediately puts the two young people in a dangerous position. As the war wears on and life gets steadily harder for anyone considered non-Aryan, both Leyna and Lutz struggle to keep their love -- and themselves -- alive. 

Is it any good?

Illuminating a lesser-known segment of Holocaust history, this film powerfully illustrates the suffering that black and mixed-race Germans endured during WWII under the Third Reich. Where Hands Touch is gripping, emotional, and beautifully told -- and it's also very difficult to watch, with few moments of relief and lightness amid the anguish. From the film's very first moment, in which Cornish's fierce German mother stands off a terrifying bunch of Nazi soldiers as her daughter hides beneath the floorboards, we understand viscerally the terrible danger that Leyna and her family are in. Some of the people the Nazis hunted were able to ride out the Holocaust by pretending to be Aryan -- but every inch of Leyna's skin reveals her heritage and makes her a target, evidenced in scenes of unflinching cruelty.

Leyna is able to take it when her teacher makes her stand up and explain why a girl with her African features came to have a "good" German last name -- or when soldiers on the street force her to produce the (faked) papers affirming that she's been sterilized and thus can't produce any "mischlings" ("mixed-race" children, in Nazi parlance). But as Leyna's life steadily turns from harrowing to excruciating, so does the film become almost unendurable, if compellingly told. One scene, in which Leyna sits in flurries of what she thinks is snow but is revealed as the drifting airborne ashes of prisoners incinerated in a concentration camp, will give viewers permanent chills. In some ways, this movie is a love story, with Leyna and Lutz managing to eke out a few happy moments in their dismal circumstances. But viewers who hope for a happy ending against all odds don't know their history well enough. The film does end on a moment of hope, but it can't obscure the misery that comes before it. History books rarely make you cry multiple times over the course of a couple of hours -- Where Hands Touch will. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what teens know about the Holocaust. What upset you in Where Hands Touch? Why? Were there any surprises? Did you learn anything new about this historical period and how it affected those who lived through it? 

  • What do you think keeps drawing filmmakers and audiences to this subject material? Does watching films about harrowing subjects help viewers process the trauma? Or is there another reason? How did the movie's violence affect you?

  • This movie has sparked some criticism for its subject: a romance between a Nazi soldier and a girl hunted by Nazis. Why do you think people might be upset about this topic? What, if anything, about the story is offensive or controversial? 

  • How do the characters in Where Hands Touch demonstrate courage, compassion, and perseverance? Why are those important character strengths?

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