The Hands of Orlac (1924)
The Hands of Orlac (1924)
Director: Robert Wiene
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner
Synopsis: A world-famous pianist loses both hands in an accident. When new hands are grafted on, he doesn’t know they once belonged to a murderer.
Although technically an Austrian film, The Hands of Orlac bears all the hallmarks of a movie belonging to the canon of German Expressionism, thanks largely to the involvement of German director Robert Wiene and leading man Conrad Veidt (Casablanca), both of whom had worked on the classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Whilst The Hands of Orlac doesn’t utilise the same kind of skewed surreal sets of its predecessor, it does make effective use of shadow and light to create a heavily forbidding atmosphere throughout what is nevertheless an over-long running time. The film also marked the debut of what was to become something of a cliched horror tale: that of an innocent man who finds himself the recipient of the hands of a killer.
Orlac is a concert pianist whom we barely meet before a train crash robs him of his hands. He writes a mean love letter, though, provoking a shiver of anticipation from his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) as she reads of how his hands will glide over her hair and caress her body. Of course, he never gets to do that, and when he discovers he has received the hands of a convicted killer in a groundbreaking transplant operation he determines that they will never touch another human being. It looks like they’ll never play the piano again, either, because when Orlac reacquaints himself with the ivory he discovers he can’t. The realisation that he will never play again drives him nearly insane – and it’s a journey that looks as if it will be hastened by the appearance of Vasseur (Fritz Kortner – Warning Shadows, Pandora’s Box), the man whose hands he has inherited!
Most movies involving the grafting of a killer’s hands onto the arms of an innocent man usually have the luckless recipient murdering those against whom their previous owner had some deadly grudge, but The Hands of Orlac employs a different tack, choosing instead to explore the psychological effects on Orlac. Veidt literally throws his whole body into expressing his character’s horror and self-loathing at what has happened to him, to the point that, to modern eyes, his performance sometimes borders on the unintentionally comical. For example, check out the way in which he holds his rigid hands, as if frightened that he might accidentally touch himself, as, upon receiving the unwelcome news, he leaves the doctor’s office. The film also presents us with another unintentionally amusing moment when a detective investigating a murder is able to deduce that two separate fingerprints belong to the same person simply by inspecting at them through a magnifying glass!
Nevertheless, The Hands of Orlac remains a remarkably effective horror movie, unflinchingly examining one man’s descent into near-madness while still finding time to shed light on the more poignant aspects of his dilemma when, for example, he finds that his wedding ring no longer fits his finger after receiving his new hands. It does go on a little too long, however. The original release was apparently only around 93 minutes long, so why it was felt necessary to cherry-pick from various versions in order to come up with an extra 20 minutes is something of a mystery. It’s nice for the completists, but those additional scenes could just as easily have been included as extras on the DVD.
(Reviewed 6th June 2015)