Hands of Orlac, The: Robert Wiene's 1924 Silent

By Jonathan Chin-Davis

Continuing their tradition of releasing German Expressionist Silent films, Kino International is releasing this year on DVD Robert Wiene's seminal feature “The Hands of Orlac” (1924), a psychological thriller shot in Austria, home of Sigmund Freud.

The story focuses on a concert pianist named Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt, who later enjoyed a Hollywood career, mostly playing villains). After a train wreck, Orlac’s own hands must be amputated. At the insistence of his wife (Alexandra Sorina), the hands of a recently executed murderer Vasseur (Fritz Kortner) are grafted onto Orlac’s body since piano represents his life. Post-operation Orlac is haunted by nightmares and strange visions of the murderer. A new series of killings begins and Orlac fears that he has lost control of his mind and body becoming a murderer himself.

Wiene is the genius, who helmed “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919) and “Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire” (1920), marked by strange characters inhabiting the boldly painted jagged shaped sets of his eerie tales.

It would seem Wiene decided to go for a more subdued approach with Orlac. Yes there are dark shadows in most of the scenes, and there is nightmarish double exposure photography, but gone are the theatrical Expressionist painted backdrops and jagged lines of trapezoidal rooftops that first shocked our senses with Caligari and continued to thrill us with Vampire. There are no pseudopodium crosses or memento mori attached to obtuse intertitle cards. The sets are mainly monochromatic charcoal, which becomes boring, unlike Caligari and Vampire, which had greater variety in shading and lighting.

The movie has a running time of 110 minutes, but occasionally drags in its pacing. The camera lingers on actors with trembling outstretched arms for emotional emphasis. Without the heightened German Expressionist sets to match, the photographic lingering only makes the acting technique look way overdone. Especially with Sorina, over and over we see her fainting or trembling against the walls, bug-eyed and mouth agape. Veidt and Kortner are more sublime, but there are times when a change of scenery would help them seem less over-the-top.

Kino’s choice of film composers is impeccable. They hired Paul Mercer to compose a stark score consisting of piano, violin, viola, cello, and voice. Reminiscent of the score for their VHS release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the bows of the string instruments scrape with raspiness against the soundboard, usually one at a time, or in reverb laced fugues. This adds to the haunting mood of psychological darkness and helps to distract us from the faulty acting.

Aside from a few scenes, which Kino had to borrow from a 16mm print, picture quality is very clear. Kino mastered their release of The Hands of Orlac in HD from a 35mm print restored by the F.W. Murnau Foundation. The 16mm footage came from the collection of Raymond Roahauer. This is the most complete home video edition to ever be released in the U.S., greatly improving plot continuity.

Aside from the scene comparisons, this disc also has other bonus features, such as excerpt’s from Maurice Renards’s novel, an essay by Conrad Veidt filmographer John Soister, the trailer to Mad Love, the 1935 remake with Peter Lorre, and an image gallery.

Spoiler Alert

The most problematic aspect of the film is its unrealistic ending, even in nightmarish German Expressionist thrillers. It turns out that Kortner was really Nera, a former accomplice of the executed Vasseur, haunting Orlac from behind windows and such. Nera had started the new string of killings and intimidated Orlac’s maid into planting evidence in her master’s home to scare the wits out of him to the point of madness. Nera also was able to make a wax mould of Vasseur’s hands while he was still alive, and turn them into rubber gloves that would leave the criminal’s exact fingerprints.

One can doubt an experienced criminal would allow anyone, let alone another criminal, to make a mould of his fingerprints. Is it not the oils from the hands that leave the fingerprints; rubber gloves would not do the trick. At the very end, the maid rushes to the aid of her employers, confessing everything to the police due to a guilty conscience.