October is Black History Month which highlights the often underrepresented history of Black people in the UK and around the world. As part of Black History Month Hannah has reviewed ‘Where Hands Touch’, a film that explores the persecution of Black and mixed race people under the Nazis.
The film’s writer and director, Amma Asante, was inspired by a photograph of a Black schoolgirl taken in Nazi Germany. For more information on the inspiration for the film you can read this article from the BBC.
‘Where Hands Touch’ was released in 2017 and tells the coming of age story of Leyna, a 15-year-old girl who is the daughter of a white German woman and a Black soldier. Her father is one of the French colonial troops from Africa who had occupied the Rhineland after the end of the First World War. Leyna (Amandla Steinberg) and her family move to Berlin to become “invisible”. There, Leyna falls in love with Lutz (George MacKay), the son of a German officer and member of the Hitler Youth.
Eventually Leyna is deported to a labour camp because of the colour of her skin. She is reunited with Lutz who is now a member of the SS and works as a guard in the camp. The film deals with an aspect of Nazi Germany which is often ignored: that of Black Germans and how they were treated under Nazi rule. The film is a work of fiction, but described as ‘inspired by historical events’.
I thought the film effectively portrayed the conflicts and multi-faceted nature of both Leyna and Lutz’s identity.
Leyna strongly identifies as being of German blood and in many ways is attracted to the Nazi ideology. She tries to take part in a Hitler Youth and League of German Girls rally, but is pushed away because this same ideology claims that she is not ‘German’. Leyna has a German mother and is therefore a German citizen, however the fact that she is mixed-race does not fit the Nazi ideology of racial purity. Leyna’s nationalistic view of her German identity also includes some antisemitism. After witnessing a Jewish friend being killed in the street she describes him as ‘a good Jew’. There is a conflict at the heart of Lenya’s identity: she sees herself as German first and foremost, and identifies with some aspects of Nazi racial ideology, yet on the same grounds she is viewed by fellow Germans as an outsider.
Lutz is a German boy who is a member of the Hitler Youth, aspires to be in the SS and wants to fight for the ‘Fatherland’. He is antisemitic and sees the deportation of Jews to concentration camps as a good thing as it prevents them from ‘plotting’ against Germany. However he falls in love with Leyna who doesn’t fit the ideology that he actively promotes. Lutz also strongly disagrees with his father who tries to discourage him from going to the front. The film effectively portrays the different influences on Lutz, from Lenya, his father, and the Hitler Youth, all of which challenge aspects of his identity and his opinions about the world around him.
The film illustrates how ideology and propaganda influence people’s ideas and beliefs. Leyna’s younger brother, Koen, goes to a German school and is a member of the Hitler Youth as decreed by law from 1936. Despite living with his sister and seeing the effect of the persecution she faces, he still readily laughs with his classmates about killing Black soldiers. Koen is completely absorbed into the Nazi ideology and despite his own personal experiences, he believes in the Nazi ideals. This effectively shows the strength of the Nazi propaganda, and particularly its influence on young boys and girls.
The film shows Leyna being deported to a labour camp in ‘Northern Bavaria’ where her head is shaved and she is given a uniform with a black triangle on, identifying her as ‘asocial’. The film’s portrayal of life in the camp does not show the full reality of the devastating conditions prisoners had to endure. Although some elements are truthful, there are many elements that are not. The main inaccuracy is the many allusions to a gas chamber at the camp where Jews are being murdered. Leyna refers to it as the ‘rathouse’, and in one scene a crematorium chimney blows out ash. However, there were no death camps in Northern Bavaria. All the extermination camps were in Nazi-occupied Poland. Some labour camps in Germany had single gas chambers, but these were mainly used to kill weak prisoners, not the mass extermination of Jews that is alluded to in the film. The film does not differentiate between death camps, concentration camps and labour camps. While some scenes allude to the reality of life in the camps, such as the brutality of the guards who kill Leyna’s friend for not having shoes, the film doesn’t show the true horror and despair that prisoners endured.
During the Nazi era and the Second World War many Black German citizens were persecuted, deported and ultimately killed by the Nazis as they did not fit the ideology of the ‘Aryan master race’.
When the Nuremberg Laws were introduced in 1935 they originally only applied to Jewish people. However they were soon extended to include Black people. Black people and those of mixed heritage were subjected to forced sterilisation from 1937, after which they had to sign agreements that they would not marry or have sex with those of German blood. This element is a key aspect of the film. The persecution of Black people steadily increased as Nazi rule went on, resulting in incarceration in concentration camps for nearly 25,000 Black Germans. However, unlike Jewish people, Roma and Sinti, and disabled people, Black people were not systematically targeted for mass killing. All Black people were persecuted under the Nazis, but their individual experiences differed widely.
Hannah May Randall, October 2019
To learn more about Nazi persecution during the Second World War and the Holocaust visit us at HELC.
Hans J. Massaquoi – Destined to Witness; Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany
Nia Reynolds and Hans J. Massaquoi – Black Victims of the Nazis: A History of Black People and Nazi Germany
Jennifer Teege – My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me
Clarence Lusane – Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of European Blacks, Africans and African Americans During the Nazi Era