THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)
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.
The Hands of Orlac is another classic of German Expressionist cinema to be given the boutique Blu-ray treatment by Eureka Entertainment’s reliable ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint. It joins their previous packages of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Waxworks (1924), and The Man Who Laughs (1928)–which also star the inimitable Conrad Veidt, possibly the finest of all silent era actors. If those titles grab your attention, then this will be a most welcome addition!
The Hands of Orlac is somewhat a misnomer as we never get to see his hands at all! Or, on the other hand, perhaps we do when the man finally takes ownership of them? The plot revolves around the titular Orlac, whose crushed hands are surgically replaced with those of another. He’s then plagued by the notion they somehow carry the personality and memories of the donor, fearing they will lead him to the same dark fate that befell them.
We’re introduced to Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) by means of a rather passionate handwritten letter to his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina), telling her how he longs to caress her and slide his hands over her hair. We learn that he’s a renowned concert pianist, away on a last major tour before he plans to downsize and spend more time at home with her. On the day of his return, Yvonne’s beside herself with anticipation but is devastated when, on the way to the station to meet him, she hears there’s been a terrible train crash…
She arrives at the site of the derailment to find a scene of chaos. There were no emergency services to speak of back then, so it’s the local townsfolk who rush hither and thither amid the smoking wreckage, carrying survivors away using their own cars and vans as ambulances. The scene, lit only by a rescue train’s lamp and glaring flares is brilliantly staged. Although realistic, it effectively expresses the panic and urgency felt by Yvonne as she scours the sculptural environment of twisted metal and carriages wedged over and under each other. The scene quickly established her as a brave woman to be reckoned with. Her tenacity and disregard for her own safety positions her as the film’s heroic protagonist as she effectively rescues her badly injured husband who may otherwise have been overlooked.
After the hook of such a dramatic opening sequence, the rest of the film shifts down a gear and progresses at a more ponderous pace. Paul’s in a coma with a bad head injury and his hands are all but crushed. Yvonne pleads with Dr Serral (Hans Homma) to do whatever he can to save her husband’s hands. He explains there’s a slim chance of success with a risky, experimental procedure he’s been developing, but she gives her consent to attempt a hand transplant. By a twist of fate, the crash coincided with the execution of a convicted murderer named Vasseur, thus providing a fresh donor. Traditionally, the bodies of executed criminals were available for medical science.
In 1924, this was the realm of science-fiction, though the idea of transplants had been around for centuries. There’s even an apocryphal tale of a Chinese medic exchanging the hearts of two men that dates back to the 4th-century BCE. The Three Army Surgeons, a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm published in 1815, features some organ-swapping and even a hand transplant where one of the surgeons loses his and replaces it with a thief’s. He finds the unruly appendage cannot shake the habit of stealing anything it can. And, of course, transplants are a central feature of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel of 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
The first successful transplant of tissue from a donor to another human, in the real world, was a partial thyroid transplant as early as 1883. This was before blood and tissue types were identified by Karl Landsteiner in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, surgeon Alexis Carrel had devised new suturing techniques that would eventually make transplantation viable. Carrel also invented the perfusion pump, a machine that could keep organs alive outside the body for long surgical procedures. But it wasn’t until 1962 that a severed limb (the patient’s own) was surgically reattached, and the first actual hand transplant wasn’t achieved until 1998.
So, when French author Maurice Renard wrote his 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac, he was eight decades ahead of his time! The character of Dr Serral had been inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning Alexis Carrel and his work. Hence the similarity of the names. It wasn’t Renard’s first work of science fiction with a medical bent, either. In his 1908 novel, Le Docteur Lerne, Sous-Dieu / Doctor Lerne, Undergod, a mad scientist swaps organs in and out of humans, animals, plants, and automatons. Renard dedicated the book to H.G Wells, acknowledging the inspiration of The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Interestingly, scriptwriter Louis Nerz, had already written a handful of screenplays, including three—The Venus (1922), The Marquise of Clermont (1922), The Hell of Barballo (1923)—directed by Hans Homma, who appears here as Dr Serral. In adapting Les Mains d’Orlac, Nerz found he had to unpick a lot of what he deemed superfluous and contradictory material, paring it back to a sparse story focussing almost exclusively on the psychological effects of believing one’s hands had committed heinous crimes. I haven’t read the original novel, so I don’t know if the Kafkaesque elements and Edgar Allan Poe atmosphere were introduced by Nerz or survive from the source material.
Hands are, at least figuratively, synonymous with the self in language. A wrong doer can be ‘caught red-handed’, or even have ‘blood on their hands’. We can use our hands to choose, accuse, approve or dismiss, to greet, caress, and to wave farewell. Hand gestures can speak volumes. Forensic graphologists can infer much from a sample of handwriting including the gender, education, class, race, fixations, and psychological state of the writer. Some eastern systems equate the hand with the anatomy of the whole body, almost as if they were homunculi of the person. The loss of a hand is quite literally, as well as symbolically, loosing part of oneself. So, to have them replaced by those of another raises the interesting questions of identity explored here.
Bear in mind that, when this story was written and consequently filmed, the memories of World War I would’ve been terrifyingly fresh, as would the fear of contagion lingering from the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic. Convalescents and the walking wounded would’ve been a familiar feature of every community as they reintegrated into society. A daily reminder of the horrors of war. The distinctive gait and odd facial expressions of men suffering from shellshock were not uncommon. Neither were catastrophic, life-changing injuries nor the experimental reconstructive surgery that attempted to mitigate them.
These physical distortions of the human form were more familiar than ever and many commentators suggest they were a major factor in propelling the horror genre in general, and what would become known as ‘body-horror’, in particular. The Hands of Orlac touches upon all these themes that would’ve been at the fore of the zeitgeist—themes that David Cronenberg would later build his entire career around.
When Paul Orlac regains consciousness, Dr Serral decides to spare his patient the details of the operation. However, Paul begins to glimpse a leering face at the window that appears to be obsessively ogling his hands. A particularly Lynchian dream sequence employs double-exposure to conjure a giant ghostly face looming over the hospital bed and a huge fist threatening to squash Orlac where he lies. He wakes to find an anonymous note left on his counterpane informing him that his hands once belonged to Vasseur, the notorious robber and murderer.
It’s the cue for Conrad Veidt to let rip with some of his most memorable whole-body acting. He’s so repulsed by what those hands may have done that he wants to be as far away from them as possible. He’s desperate to keep them at arm’s length, so to speak! Veidt’s performance may be too close to mime for some, but in the silent era, that’s pretty much what acting had to be. His portrayal of a man who doesn’t want to touch his own hands is inspired. I can’t think of a better choice for the part and I’m certain the film would’ve faded into obscurity without him, overshadowed by director Robert Weine’s earlier classic of German Expressionist cinema, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), also starring Conrad Veidt as ‘the somnambulist’.
German Expressionism had been a stop-gap style that enabled film-production to continue with very restricted budgets. During Germany’s interwar economic crisis, it became too difficult to access suitable locations or create realistic mise-en-scène with authentic props. Instead, non-naturalistic sculptural sets were painted with striking, distorted designs. Probably due to the general rise of Expressionism as a dominant style in European art, it quickly became a legitimate cinematic approach that carried through from the set design and costume to the acting and psychological themes. The striking sets presented a new aspect to cinematic language that visualised the psychological aspects of the narrative and externalised the emotions of the characters.
When compared to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Orlac is far more subtle though also includes a few self-conscious references to its artistic heritage. The most overt is when Veidt expresses his character’s inner confusion and torment by mimicking the open-mouthed, hands over ears, pose of Edvard Munch’s famed painting “The Scream”—a defining image of Expressionism.
Alexandra Sorina holds her own admirably opposite Veidt and her character has just as much dimension. Her eyes are just as big and bright as his, too! She anchors more familiar emotions to reality that the viewer can sympathise with. Yvonne really stands with her husband, despite the changes he’s going through, even when witnessing his flailings of murderous fantasy.
It’s a relationship reminiscent of Betty Ross and Bruce Banner in the Hulk. Orlac’s changes, also brought about by medical experiment, make him more pitiful than powerful but both Paul Orlac and Bruce Banner fear intimacy. The embodied threat of their physical change makes them reluctant to touch their loved ones. Freud would say that both have undergone a symbolic castration. Orlac’s hands have been cut-off and… well, the Hulk’s pants get real tight! But I digress!
There’s no denying that the sparse sets, designed by Stefan Wessely, Karl Exner, and Hans Ruoc, become increasingly Expressionistic as the plot progresses, externalising Orlac’s paranoia and increasingly distorted view of himself. The world around him becomes oppressive. Cavernous interiors seem to dwarf the characters and, in some shots, oversized chairs make them appear childlike and vulnerable. The abyssal rooms often have no ceilings, and the walls are painted to emphasise the darkness of corners. Pools from the implied interior lamps are also painted to free up the studio lighting for more expressive purposes.
The cinematography of Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin keeps things suitably foreboding and doom-laden, prefiguring Noir with velvety greys and deep, structural shadows. Non-naturalistic lighting plays a narrative role throughout. Spot lamps pick out figures in the darkness like baroque tableaux. Frequently, the studio lights work with the many fades through black that punctuate the action. Not sure if those decisions were made at the editing stage, but they are cleverly contrived. The camera is generally locked in position, so it’s down to the compositions created by set and lighting to provide some visual pleasure. But it’s really the kinetics of the performers, particularly Veidt, that keep things moving. Literally.
Did someone say ‘overacting’? Sure, but the performance isn’t acting in the modern sense, nor was it in the theatrical mode of the time that audiences were perhaps more used to seeing on the stage. It helps to reframe Veidt’s central performance as choreographic. Silent acting is a skill distinct from other forms of the art and if approached as a dance, the performances in Orlac are superb. There’s even great floor work and the dynamics of standing, kneeling, reaching up, falling down, not only keep things visually interesting, but they’re also consciously illustrating relationship dynamics and gradients of authority between the characters. There’s no dialogue as such, so the narrative has to be conveyed with face and physical form. The inter-captions help, of course, but they’ve been kept deliberately minimal to avoid breaking the rhythm.
For the most part, The Hands of Orlac falls back on Veidt’s virtuoso performance, but Sorina’s should not be overlooked and is a sufficiently strong foil throughout. Carmen Cartellieri also deserves an honourable mention as the Orlacs’ maid, Regine, who plays her pivotal part to great effect, especially when ordered to “seduce his hands”.
Perhaps too much time is spent on atmospherics, and creating an off-kilter mood piece, leaving motivations effectively ambiguous until a sudden dump of meaningful exposition in the final reel when we realise that the whole narrative has been underpinned by a well-constructed puzzle-plot, albeit with a touch of the ‘Scooby-Doos’. We get a Sherlokian exposition, courtesy of Regine and, finally, the tormented Paul Orlac gets some definitive closure. The credits have rolled before one has fully unpicked the revelations of the denouement.
The degree of enjoyment really depends on what preconceptions one brings to The Hands of Orlac. It will either mesmerise the viewer with its austere environments and hypnotic, hyperbolic gestures. Or it will seem slow and, despite the genuine creepiness of several scenes, may ultimately come across as slightly silly. I sit squarely in the former camp and would suggest reframing the film as a modern avant-garde arthouse offering, rather than an outdated silent movie. Or perhaps thinking of it as a graphic novel in which the pictures move within the rigid panels. And there’s no denying Veidt’s central performance is a tour de force of expressive storytelling!
AUSTRIA | 1924 | 92 MINUTES • 105 MINUTES (RESTORED) | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | SILENT (GERMAN)
director: Robert Wiene.
writers: Ludwig Nertz (play) & Maurice Renard (book).
starring: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner, Carmen Cartellieri, Fritz Strassny & Paul Askonas.