ROBERT WIENE’S THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)

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 filmThe Hands of Orlac conjures up the hands of Expressionist painter Egon Schiele and composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Still from The Hands of Orlac (1924)‘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.

3 thoughts on “ROBERT WIENE’S THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)”

  1. The interesting storyline (hands transplant and the skills associated with the newly acquired hands) offers much scope for remakes with countless variations and situations.

  2. It’s interesting that authors and filmmakers have used the “transplant transferring personality/memory” trope for a century but we are just now finding some evidence that to some extent this actually occurs. My wife donated a kidney and her recipient developed both a reversion to meat–my wife and I are vegetarians–and mild seasonal depression, which my wife has struggled with for decades. In the transplant community this phenomemon has been anecdotally noted for many years (another example: a friend of ours received a kidney from a suicide victim and immediately began to experience severe depression and a desire to isolate, symptoms completely at odds with her previous personality). Scientists have recently discovered that all human organs contain the types of cells associated with memory storage, forcing a bit of a rethink on the brain’s exclusivity in that regard. Will a pair of hands or a couple of corneas cause someone to go mad or plot murders? Not likely…but there’s a kernel of truth to the idea and now a bit of science to back it up.

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