Movie Review: The Hands of Orlac (Austria, 1924)

The Hands of OrlacBy Colleen Wanglund,

Based on Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac this earliest film version directed by Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari {1920}), though technically Austrian is a superb example of German Expressionism in the silent era of film.

Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is a young and gifted pianist.  Returning home from a concert, Orlac is badly injured in a train wreck.  Orlac’s devoted wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) begs Dr. Serral (Hans Homma) to save the pianist’s hands.  Serral removes the hands from the corpse of a recently executed robber/murderer and replaces Orlac’s hands, which were damaged beyond repair.  Serral does not tell Orlac of the transplant surgery, but he finds out anyway. 

Orlac returns home but his demeanor has changed.  He is in despair over the state of his hands and is afraid to touch his own wife.  Over the course of many months Orlac cannot play the piano with his new hands and so the couple becomes destitute.  During this time a stranger has been watching Orlac and attempting to manipulate him.  Orlac begins to doubt his sanity, as he believes more and more that his hands—or rightly those of a murderer—are dangerous and murderous in their own right. 

After Yvonne receives a visit from the creditors, she goes to see Orlac’s father, who refuses to help the couple.  Orlac himself is convinced to ask his father for some financial help but when he arrives at the elder Orlac’s home, he finds his father dead…stabbed to death.  After contacting the police, Orlac becomes increasingly aware of the predicament he finds himself in.  Did he kill his father with the hands of a murderer?  While the police investigate, Orlac slips away, going to a pub for a drink.  He is followed there by the mysterious stranger, who tells Orlac that he is in fact the murderer and wants money in place of the hands that Orlac now has.  To prove he is the murderer, he shows Orlac that his hands are missing and the scar around his neck, where he claims the doctor reattached his head.

At his wits end, Orlac goes home, where he tells Yvonne everything—about his hands, the belief that the murderer is alive and blackmailing him, and the murder of his father.  Yvonne believes Orlac and convinces him to go to the police.  He does and tells his story, which they find fanciful, to say the least.  However, one man believes him and decides to let Orlac meet with the blackmailer.  Is it in fact the murderer, executed and brought back to life using the same experimental surgery that saved Orlac’s hands?  Or is the power of suggestion too much for Orlac to ignore?

I love silent horror films and especially those from Germany like Nosferatu (1922), The Golem (1920), and Waxworks (1924).  While not as distorted or exaggerated in its expressionism as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Hands of Orlac still resonates with plenty of style and shadow and the cinematography by Hans Androschin and Gunther Krampf is absolutely beautiful.  The scenes early on of the train wreck that badly injure Orlac perfectly capture the horror and chaos of the accident, complete with jagged pieces of smoking wreckage and people running to and fro.  And the dream sequence of Orlac while hospitalized including a giant fist moving to pummel him in his bed expertly foreshadow his mental deterioration.

One of the reasons I love silent films is the expressiveness needed to get across the story with minimal dialogue.  While some of the acting can be a bit over-the-top, such as when Yvonne is asking Dr. Serral for help, much of it in this particular film is amazing in its ability to tell the story.  We certainly don’t need an on-screen dialogue prompt to know that Orlac is slowly headed for a mental breakdown.  Conrad Veidt is brilliant in the title role, imparting doubt, love, panic and fear without a single word.  What’s ironic is that one of Veidt’s most memorable movie roles (at least for American audiences) is Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).  Conrad Veidt fled Germany after the Nazis came to power and he received death threats for opposing them. 

While more psychological thriller than horror the film manages to avoid many of the common horror clichés seen in other horror films of the time. The film has enough sexual innuendo to have kept Freud busy, but unfortunately got it edited prior to its American release in 1927.  There have been multiple remakes and other homages since The Hands of Orlac--most notably Mad Love (1935) starring Peter Lorre and Colin Clive; and The Hands of Orlac (1960) starring Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee—but the original 1924 version is easily my favorite.  Unfortunately most of today’s horror audience with their short attention span might not appreciate the early silent films such as The hands of Orlac.
The Hands of Orlac is available on DVD from Kino Lorber.  Their edition is mastered in HD from a  35mm print restored by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, although does include some footage from another 16mm print from the Raymond Rohauer Collection of England. 

Runtime 110 minutes
Silent with English intertitles

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