This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – The Hands of Orlac (1924)
After the triumphant contribution to both horror and cinema that was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), director Robert Wiene followed with the poorly received, utterly forgettable Genuine (1920). In 1924, however, he returned to the genre once again with his Caligari star, Conrad Veidt, in the crime-horror The Hands of Orlac. The story is adapted from Maurice Renard’s body-horror novel of the same name, and tells of a pianist, Paul Orlac (Veidt), who loses his hands in a train wreck and has them replaced with transplants from a man recently executed for murder. Orlac begins to feel as though the homicidal impulses are affecting his soul and mind, and soon larger mysteries and even murder are crashing down upon Orlac and his loyal, devoted wife.
It was one of the first movies to deal with the concept of hands having a will of their own. Successful surgical transplants were still several decades into the future, so the story straddles the line into science-fiction. Once again the notion of amputees looms large as still-fresh memories of the Great War inform the fears of the 1920s audience.
Unlike Wiene’s two previous horror entries, the sets in this Austrian production are mostly natural, with only slight Expressionist-inspired exaggerations and motifs. Wiene’s approach, particularly when compared to his Expressionist works, is conservative and reminiscent of American studio films. The worldly twist, inspired by late 18th century English Gothic novels which dispelled the seemingly supernatural with rationalism, reinforces this feeling, and is alone what keeps the movie from reaching the heights of Caligari in its final act.
The lighting is minimal, often employed like spotlights piercing the darkness, exposing the characters, and the sets are mostly bare but perfectly serviceable. The one exception is the realistic train wreckage with the smashed cars piled in the smoke, revealed with the flash of illuminating search lights.
Veidt, as always, is perfectly suited for the role. His portrayal of a man losing control of his body and will is convincing, hypnotic, and at times unexpectedly graceful. In a 1927 interview with Paul Ickes Veidt described his process, and from any other actor it might sound like pretentious boasting, but no one who has seen Veidt perform could doubt his sincerity:
“For days or even weeks before filming I withdraw into myself, contemplate my navel, as it were, concentrating on a kind of infection of the soul. And soon I discover how the character I have to portray grows in me, how I am transformed into it. The intensity of the process almost frightens me. Before long I find, even before the cameras begin to turn, that in my daily life I move, talk, look and behave differently. The inner Conrad Veidt has become the other person whom I have to portray, or rather into whom my self has changed by autosuggestion. This state could best be described as one of being ‘possessed’” (as quoted by Steve Haberman, Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film, 66).
I sometimes watch silent films on mute because I find the scores distracting, especially when they do not coincide well with the scenes, but Paul Mercer’s 2008 score, which accompanied the copy I watched, fits the film perfectly, accentuating the unsettling mood.
While it is an impressive artistic achievement, Orlac can move sluggishly at times. Nevertheless, Robert Wiene proves that Caligari was not a fluke. The film was well received upon its release, though some censors opposed certain aspects, including law enforcement authorities who worried that scenes in the film taught the public how to outsmart the police. The novel’s author, Maurice Renard, was thoroughly satisfied, and said that, “The cinematographic adaptation of Orlac’s Hands gratifies my wishes. I was never understood so passionately nor interpreted with such power.” Orlac arrived in the U.S. in 1928 minus a reel, which probably accounts for the mixed response it received here, and it was remade as an American film in 1935 as Mad Love by Karl Freund, starring Peter Lorre.
Wiene would not return to horror again, instead making comedies and dramas, but his mark on the genre, first with Caligari and finally with Orlac, is immortal.