When I sit down with filmmaker Amma Asante in her hotel room the day after the world premiere of her new movie Where Hands Touch at the Toronto International Film Festival, she's celebrating the culmination of a 12-year journey. The period drama was in the works long before her lush historical features Belle and A United Kingdom were made and subsequently released in 2013 and 2016, respectively. In the finally finished product of Where Hands Touch, Amandla Stenberg plays Leyna, the child of a white woman and a black man, growing up in Nazi Germany. And while Leyna herself is not based on a specific person, write/director Asante drew from Germany's bitter history to show what mixed race individuals experienced when the Third Reich was in power.
Per CNN, there were approximately 800 mixed race children living in the Rhineland in the late '30s who faced the threat of being sterilized, were forced into work camps, or were made subject to medical experiments by the Gestapo. The "complicated" existence of Afro-Germans fascinated Asante, especially as their stories are not commonly told, at least in mainstream media.
"You’re rejected, but you’re living in local life, but you’re definitely not experiencing local life to the same severe degree of barbarity that Jewish people are, but that doesn’t mean life isn’t terrible," the filmmaker explains. "You keep walking this tightrope. If you keep your head down, you might make it through the war. But if you meet the wrong SS person on the wrong day, that’s it, you’re into a [labor] camp ... which might not have the killing showers in it, but people were definitely being worked to death."
In crafting Where Hands Touch's script, Asante had the chance to speak with survivors, and the "triumph" of their existence helped her deal with the emotional toll of embarking on deep and necessary research. "I felt happy to be able to tell the stories — or shine a light, let’s put it that way — on a group of people that we didn't really know about. So that kind of kept me going," Asante explains.
The survivors she met with were "very different," and she was not looking for one experience on which to base her storyline. But the filmmaker says she saw "patterns," in their stories, even if they took different turns. While one survivor she spoke to was "well-versed" in speaking about that time period, another, Asante recalls, was much more cautious. "It was very clear to me that the toll of that period had not left her at all, and she was very concerned for me as a black female coming to Germany maybe not knowing Germany very well," she says. "Obviously lots had happened, a wall had been built, a wall had come down. But in her world, there was still the stress of the times. And seeing me, possibly brought some of that back to her."
In this exclusive clip of the film, Leyna and her mother receive an unexpected visit from the SS, who challenge Leyna's right to call herself a German, which underlines the constant fear Afro-Germans were living with.
The reality of the period and the character she'd written were so complex that Asante had assumed that she would have to cast a considerably older actor to play the 15-year-old Leyna. But a convoluted path led her to Stenberg, who she'd first come into contact with in her Twitter DMs after Belle's release. Later, the director saw and admired Stenberg's video explaining cultural appropriation, and learned that she'd already racked up a few acting credits.
"'Why on earth are we not thinking about her for Where Hands Touch?" Asante remembers thinking. But there was still the question of whether the "very modern and very American" actor could play the "very European and very period" role. Stenberg came to London, and they began to work on the unique accent she uses in the film. "By then we were really convinced she could do it," the director says. "The question was, did she believe she could do it?" They obviously came to the same conclusion, and Asante says that she, Stenberg, and the rest of her cast — which includes Abbie Cornish, George MacKay, and Christopher Eccleston — formed a "team of equals" who "were all birthing [the movie] together."
Leyna's journey in the film overlaps with that of Lutz (MacKay), a white boy who's the son of an SS officer. There's young love coming up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles — a tale as old as time; but in this case, the romantic subplot led to internet backlash about how a relationship depicted between a biracial girl and a Nazi boy would "romanticize" the party. And with white supremacists seemingly more emboldened than they've ever been in modern society, the idea that a character like Leyna would be called upon to enlighten and soften a Nazi officer was off-putting to some potential moviegoers.
But Asante, who's always defended her film in this regard, felt validated when reviews were released. "[It's] gratifying to see headlines today, stark headlines, 'This movie does not romanticize Nazis,'" she says. "You know, I can say it till the cows come home, the headline is still going to be, 'Amma defends her movie.' But then if somebody else says it, that means something else. I’m happy that people recognize that today."
That said, Asante very much does want viewers to apply the lessons of the movie to now, especially as it pertains to "the language of dehumanization" and how significant it is as a warning sign. "Names, words, taking away someone’s humanness through your language is something that we continue to do, and it makes it easy for us to be able to feel better about ourselves," she says. "It makes it easier for us to believe that we belong to something to say somebody else doesn’t."
But the film Asante wanted to make is not a romantic love story anyway — to her, the most valuable relationship in Where Hands Touch is between mother and daughter, a protectiveness and love that literally keeps the protagonist alive.
"For me, this is a feminist story to a certain extent," she says. "[Leyna] wins, and she triumphs, and everything that Hitler wanted for her is not achieved. She thwarts his wishes for her, and that legacy exists today."