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Where Hands Touch Fails the Black German Experience by Creating a Nazi “Forbidden Love” Story

George MacKay and Amandla Stenberg in Where Hands Touch (2018)

When news broke that Amma Asante’s next feature film, Where Hands Touch, was going to be a historical World War II set love story between a mixed-race Black German girl and a Hitler Youth, the reaction from many was a resounding “keep It.”

The film did get made, and the director took to Twitter to announce that the movie was now streaming in the new year, so people went to take a peak and the reaction was well meme’d. There is an excellent piece in Variety by Hunter Harris and Haaniyah Angus, breaking down how the internet dragged this movie, with Angus being the brave soul to live-tweet the film for us all.

Part of the reason I have had a deeply emphatic destain for this movie is that prior hearing about the film, I’d just read the amazing memoir Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J Massaquoi. Massaquoi was a mixed-race German man who came of age during the Third Reich. His grandfather was Momulu Massaquoi, prince of the Vai tribe of Sierra Leone and Liberia. His mother was a white German woman, Bertha Baetz. His father was a law student, who occasionally lived with the family at the consul general home in Hamburg, where is how he met Baetz. Massaquoi and his mother remained in Germany throughout Hitler’s rise to power.

The book was the first time I’d ever been exposed to a narrative of what it meant to be a Black German in this time period. There is such a hunger within Black readership to be told stories and histories of our people beyond the narrow window that is usually allowed to us, so I can see why Asante, and actor Amandla Stenberg, would be drawn to the idea. But my goddess.

Now, while there is a lot to drag and the memes about Where Hands Touch are truly delightful, what really upsets me about this movie was how it missed an opportunity to tell a story of the “Rhineland Bastard” and their experiences during the Third Reich.

In a chapter entitled “The Shame of the Rhineland” Massaquoi explains the rhetoric around Afro-Germans at the time, who were called the derogatory term “Rhineland Bastards.” Massaquoi explains as a boy going to school and being told of Hitler defying the Treaty of Versailles and marching his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, on Germany’s border with France. His teacher called it a proud moment and that “Thanks to our Fuhrer, you German boys can again walk with your heads held high.”

And just as Massaquoi was about to be wrapped up in his own German pride, the teacher then brought up that the withdrawal of German troops after WWI had allowed “uncivilized French Neger” troops to entire the country, to “mingle and fraternize” with German people, and thus “the Rhineland was being saddled with thousands of physically and mentally inferior bastard children.”

Massaquoi then quotes a passage from Hitler’s minister of agriculture, Reichsbauernführer Richard-Walther Darre, who said:

“It is essential to exterminate the leftovers from the black Shame on the Rhine. These mulatto children were created either through rape or by white mothers who were whores. In any case, there exists not the slightest moral obligation toward these racially foreign offspring. About fourteen years have elapsed in the meantime; those of the mulattoes who are still alive will now enter the age of puberty, meaning that there isn’t much time left for long discussions. Let France and other states deal with their race question the way they want; for us there is only one solution: extermination of all that is foreign, especially in the case of these that through violence and amorality created damages. Thus, as a Rhinelander I demand: sterilization of all mulattoes with whom we were saddled by the black Shame at the Rhine.

“This measure has to be carried out within the next two years. Otherwise it is too late, with the result that hundreds of years later this racial deterioration will still be felt. Legal prevention of marriages with race-foreign elements is ineffective, since what is not possible legally usually happens illegally.” (p 112-113)

He also quotes Hitler’s Mein Kampf to further illustrate the mentality:

“Because of its racial policies, Hitler targeted France as “by far the most terrible enemy.” “This [French] people,” he wrote in Mein Kampf,

“…which is basically becoming more and more negrified, constitutes in its tie with the aims of Jewish world domination an enduring danger for the existence of the white race in Europe. For the contamination by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe is just as much in keeping with the perverted sadistic thirst for vengeance of this hereditary enemy of our people as is the ice-cold calculation of the Jews thus to begin bastardizing the European continent at its core and to deprive the white race of the foundations for a sovereign existence through infection with lower humanity.

What France, spurred by her own thirst for vengeance and systematically led by the Jew, is doing in Europe today is a sin against the existence of white humanity and some day will incite against this people all the avenging spirit of a race which has recognized racial pollution as the original sin of humanity…”

Hitler then goes on to predict that

“if the development of France in the present style were to be continued for three hundred years, the last remnants of Frankish blood would be submerged in the developing European-African mulatto state. An immense self-contained area of settlement from the Rhine to the Congo, filled with a lower race gradually produced from continuous bastardization…” (p.113)

Throughout the memoir, Massaquoi talks about growing up with no other Black people around, being forced in isolation to define his blackness mainly in the form of well known African-American Black men at the time: Joe Louis and Jesse Owens in particular. At how being a German-born child, he had to deal with his natural-born patriotism being in opposition to his own existence.

As it is a coming-of-age story in many ways, you see these two sides of Massaquoi’s identity always in conflict during this time of his life. But, as a German, you also see him depicting his fellow Germans with fairness. Not every white character is a Nazi by choice, nor wrapped up in the ideology of the Third Reich, but everyone is complicit in it, even Massaquoi himself, who admits being disappointed he couldn’t be a Hitler Youth as a child and being constantly targeted for what made him different instead of what made him German.

I’m not saying that adapting Massaquoi’s story was the only way to tell this narrative, but turning this moment in history into a love story was the wrong move. Not only does it do a disservice to what it meant to be Black and German during that time, but there is absolutely no reason why you should ever have a scene of a concentration camp inmate and a Nazi running together in slow motion like it’s an airport in a romantic comedy. Do you want it as a B-plot in a larger narrative that addresses the race laws and crimes, Rassenschande (race defilement), that existed at the time? Sure. The whole narrative? No thanks.

Over the weekend, I was trying to put into words why this movie bothered me beyond all of the obvious reasons. I don’t find it “offensive” because it is truly too jaw-droppingly bad, but when it came down to it, I just really dislike interracial romance movies that frame a woman of color’s vagina as being so magical it can fix racism. It can’t.

If you are truly a racist, having sex with a woman of the opposite race as you will not change you, you do not receive a radical education via intercourse. Slavery, colonization, etc. would not have existed if that were true. This movie feels like one step away from a Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemmings romantic love story (the thing of nightmares) and I just wish that the artistic desire to “look at both sides” didn’t always give women of color magic racist-healing vaginas.

Because even if such a thing existed, it’s not anyone’s responsibility to screw racism out of anyone. Read a damn book.

(image: Vertical Entertainment)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.