The Hands of Orlac

The Hands of Orlac is a 1924 Austrian film directed by Robert Wiene and based on the book Les Mains d’Orlac by Maurice Renard. It stars Conrad Veidt as the great pianist, Paul Orlac, who tragically loses his hands in a train crash. When his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) begs the doctor to save his hands he finds the solution in the recently guillotined murderer Vasseur. Vasseur’s hands are transplanted and Orlac starts to suffer from nightmares, but it’s not until he returns home that his troubles really start.

Shortly before he leaves the hospital a note is left on his bed when he’s sleeping, telling him whose hands he has. He confronts the doctor who confirms that the pianists once beautiful hands have been replaced by the hands of a murderer. Orlac is distraught, he returns home a sullen and tragic figure, he shuns his wife and when he tries to play the piano he finds that he no-longer can.

He starts to research the murderer Vasseur, he finds a newspaper article that gives details of his crime stating that the murder weapon used was a screwdriver with an ‘X’ carved into the handle. Orlac returns home to find the weapon stuck in his door, he takes it and hides it in his piano. That night he’s consumed by thoughts of murder, he takes the screwdriver and imagines that he is a murderer. Orlac is losing his mind.

Since the accident, Orlac has obviously not played a single concert and this has left him and his wife penniless. Paul is unaware of just how broke they are, so as not to put him under anymore stress, Yvonne goes to Paul’s rich father and begs for help. He refuses and she returns home, confesses all to Paul and persuades him to go and see his father. When he gets there he discovers his father’s body with the ‘X’ marked screwdriver sticking out of his chest.

The Hands of Orlac is an interesting film and probably the first example of a ‘body horror‘ cinema. It reunited Veidt with Wiene and whilst it explores some similar themes to Caligari, it sadly doesn’t share the Expressionist design. That said, it is dark and shadowy with creeping figures and a feeling of isolation which permeates the entire film. The true Expressionism of Orlac comes from Veidt’s performance. As the post accident Orlac he is a broken, fractured man and the scenes in which he shows this are some of the most memorable moments of early cinema.

Like a lot of early cinema, Orlac suffers a little from what can only be described as some bizarre scenes. When Yvonne visits Paul’s father we encounter an unnecessarily strange and creepy butler, then she asks Paul’s father; ‘He is your son . . . Your flesh and blood . . . would you let him become destitute?’ To which he replies ,‘Yes! I want to . . . I hate him.’ And there ends the pointedly brief conversation.

In another equally bizarre (and probably my favourite scene), the maid is told to ‘seduce his hands’ by the ‘ghost’ of Vasseur. She enters the room where Paul is sat, crawls across the floor and kisses his hand, Paul recoils at the kiss then thinks, eventually resting his hands on her head. It’s an unexpectedly, oddly quite kinky scene and I have no idea why it’s there.

The version of the film I have is the one seen in the trailer and is distributed by Kino International. It features music by Paul Mercer which really adds to the overall feel of the film, (sadly the examples given here don’t feature the same music). After years of the picture being incomplete due to German censorship laws, and the fact that the American release was a full reel shorter than the original print, the 1995 version finally fully restores the complete picture. There’s also some fascinating extras on there which compare the variations between the 16mm and 35mm prints. It’s well worth watching and you can view the complete film here.

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