The Hands Of Orlac (Orlacs Hände)

Austria (1924) Dir. Robert Wiene

When people have heart transplants they sometimes say they feel a little different from having it replaced by one from another person. This is psychological but may have some merit to it although it may not apply to all forms of transplant – for example, when receiving someone else’s limb.

Concert pianist Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is travelling home to his loving wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) when his train collides with another, causing an almighty crash. Paul survives but his hands are severely damaged. Yvonne pleads with surgeon Dr. Serra (Hans Homma) to save Paul’s hands which he can’t but has an alternative solution – a hand transplant.

The operation is a success and Paul returns home, but is psychologically damaged by the revelation of the hands belonging to a recently executed murderer named Vasseur, and thinks Vasseur’s evil is possessing his body. Unable to play the piano and now in debt, Paul goes to see his estranged father (Fritz Strassny) for a loan only to find him stabbed to death. The police investigation finds a set of fingerprints on the knife – Vasseur’s.  

Based on the 1920 French novel Les Mains d’Orlac by Maurice Renard, the basic plot of The Hands Of Orlac will seem rather familiar even if you’ve not seen or heard of either this film or the book. There have been a couple of remakes, including 1935’s Mad Love and 1960’s Hands Of A Stranger, but the basic concept has been reworked, lampooned, and ripped off on numerous other occasions that it will sound old hat now.

Known as one of the early exponents of German Expressionism through his seminal work The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, director Robert Wiene applies this to Orlac, which doesn’t seem to have much in common with this distinctive visual style. Whereas Caligari stood out with its surreal painted angular sets, the contemporary setting meant Weine couldn’t replicate these, outside of the vast hall of the home of Paul’s father, illustrating not just his immense wealth but also his cold, austere personality.

Despite the scant opportunities to use visually impressive sets, Weine circumvents this by going in the opposite direction – the rooms in Paul’s home are large and spacious, making him look small and helpless as his paranoia grows about being possessed by Vasseur’s hands. His beloved piano for instance, sits in the middle of large drawing room and Weine uses this space to draw our Paul’s cautious approach to the instrument for the first time since the operation.

Using a wide shot in this way in is quite rare, exposing the expanse of the set rather than disguising it via a tighter shot, but it not only has the desired effect in delineating Paul’s increasing madness but also allows for the obligatory use of shadows. As Paul sits in fear of what his hands may be making him do or think, the dark areas looming above him from corner to corner are themselves like hands closing their grasp in on him.

For all the simplicity of these scenes, the opening with the train crash is huge in scope and modern in execution. In an era when this would have happened off screen, Weine shows the aftermath of the crash – people running around in shock and panic, smoke billowing out of the wrecked carriages, injured people lying on the grass or being stretchered away, and Paul the last person carried out of the wreckage.

Such rare realism from a director known a visually outlandish style but it certainly makes for a refreshing change. Some habits still die hard however, namely the acting which is typically melodramatic, and Paul’s histrionic reactions to having a murderer’s hands but this is par for the course for 1924. It ebbs and flows according to the script but there are times when it takes the viewer out of the moment.

Meanwhile, the story trundles along at a slow pace, barely hitting first gear until an hour in and often making little sense due to some odd editing. For example, the Orlacs’ maid Regine (Carmen Cartellieri) is shown writing a letter to someone refusing to do their bidding. We find out eventually who this is, but at this point it is stuck in between two relevant scenes and left to feel incongruous to the plot.

A little too late, mystery arises from the murder of Paul’s father when a series of notes written by Vasseur’s hand are designed to through the police off the scent, are revealed by a chap named Nera (Fritz Kortner). He claims Dr. Serra transplanted Vasseur’s head onto his own body and demands a million francs or he goes to the police and frames Paul for the murder.

You have to admit, it is a great angle for a scam but ten minutes isn’t enough to drag sufficient suspense out of it, even within 92 minutes. Weine wanted to showcase Conrad Veidt instead, after working with him on Caligari, in depicting Paul’s mental crumbling and internal torment rather than progress the story. With such a juicy foundation for a tense mystery drama this is a shame.

One very interesting take away for me was how much of Paul’s disturbed appearance could be found in the aesthetic of another classic Veidt performance, as Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs. His pale face and nervous toothy smile here shares many similarities with the rictus grin of Gwynplaine, both hiding the torment behind those smiles. There is also a chance the way Veidt walks with his arms outstretched as if he is trying to distance himself from his hands inspired Karloff’s performance as the Frankenstein Monster as well as every zombie in existence!

It might not reach its full potential as a mystery drama given its high concept, not to mention predating the first ever hand transplant by 74 years, but The Hands Of Orlac remains a worthwhile watch for fans of silent and German Expressionism cinema.

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