Robert Wiene’s 1924 film, The Hands of Orlac is the first of several film adaptations of Maurice Renard’s story of a concert pianist who hands are amputated and replaced with the hands of a murderer. Of the remakes, the most notable is unquestionably Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Love with an all star 30’s cast of Peter Lorre, Colin Clive, Francis Drake, and Ted Healy. Freund’s cinematographer, Gregg Toland, also filmed Citizen Kane (1940) and critic Pauline Kael famously noted the considerable visual influence Freund’s film had on Welles. Peter Lorre also starred yet another version of the story, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) which allegedly was (anonymously) written by Luis Buñuel (doubtful) and Curt Siodmak (much more likely) and directed by Robert Florey.
Mad Love shifted the primary focus from cursed hands to mad scientists and unrequited love. While that film has its admirers, it is not an example of Expressionist film. As compared to its counterpoints in painting and in music, Expressionism really only existed in the art form of silent film. The Hands of Orlac conjures up the hands of Expressionist painter Egon Schiele and composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Conrad Veidt‘s performance can only be described as expressed inner rhythm. His acting, like the greatest of silent actors, is a visceral dance. Later, Veidt proved to be as naturalistic an actor as Hollywood required (i.e, his next to last role as the Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca, ironically, one of several Nazi roles played by the staunchly anti-Nazi actor who had been targeted for assassination in Hitler’s Germany); still, Veidt is, justifiably, remembered for his earlier, eminently stylized acting. His Orlac is almost the text book essence of Weimar Cinema (even if it was an Austrian production) and justifies the actor’s claim that “I never got Caligari out of my system.” The hallucinatory fever billows in the veins of the actor’s brow.
Alexandra Sorina’s performance is a suitable match to her co-star and their scenes together are, often, erotic, but in a way one might find eroticism in a canvas of Emil Nolde. Wiene’s style is far more subdued here than in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The exaggerated sets echo Orlac’s distorted vision and the film itself is ominously paced like a somnambulist walk.