Robert Wiene is something of a forgotten figure in film history. Despite directing The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, one of the most influential silent films of all-time, most of the credit tends to go to set designer and original director, Fritz Lang, while Wiene is frequently dismissed as a one-hit wonder. His 1924 adaptation of The Hands Of Orlac is not a perfect film, but remains the most faithful and satisfying version of Maurice Renard‘s novel and serves as a useful rejoinder to anyone who thinks Caligari was a one-off.
The Hands Of Orlac is one of those stories with such a strong premise that it has entered the shared consciousness of the horror genre now, in the same way as The Monkey’s Paw or The Devil and Daniel Webster. It’s been adapted numerous times in direct adaptations like Mad Love and Hands Of A Stranger, and indirectly in titles as varied as The Eye and The Hand, and even referenced in The Simpsons and The League Of Gentlemen.
The story follows Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt – who some might say is the original Joker) as a concert pianist who loses his hands in a serious train crash. Although he receives a revolutionary hand transplant, he discovers that he’s received the hands of a recently executed murderer and soon comes to believe that the hands are possessing him, and compelling him to kill.
Veidt is fantastic as the titular Orlac – one of the finest stars of silent cinema, he gave iconic, sometimes incredibly physical performances in films like Caligari and The Man Who Laughs, and brings an intensity to Orlac that makes him incredibly memorable. The scene where he stares at his hands, veins popping out of his forehead, is astonishing – it’s not just stylised, it’s a kind of performance art. He really makes an impression in what would be a fairly thankless role in subsequent adaptations, often overshadowed by the more colourful part of the film’s villain, here played by Fritz Kortner.
To give him his due, Kortner comes perilously close to stealing this film away from Veidt. It’s a character that can veer towards campy and over-the-top (just see Peter Lorre’s in Mad Love for proof of this) but Kortner gives him an understated menace that only gives way to full-on mania towards the end. The use of prosthetics on his arms makes him a macabrely memorable villain, and distinct from his other memorable role in Pandora’s Box. Alexandra Sorina is also impressive as Orlac’s wife, giving a natural, humane performance that never seems too broad, even by today’s standards. The scene where Orlac attempts to play the piano again after his operation is particularly effective, conveying the fact he can’t play any more just through Sorina’s heartbreaking reaction.
Wiene’s direction is full of German expressionist trademarks but also more natural in places, containing several striking moments. The framing and cinematography of the train crash is particularly memorable, and, as shot with smoke, twisted wreckage and bodies being hauled around is more than a little evocative of the First World War, while Veidt’s performance post-surgery often resembles that of a shell-shocked returning soldier. The plot itself is convoluted, with several contrivances and big gaps in logic, but it hardly matters when the premise is so intriguing and the film looks so beautiful. The sets are wonderfully Gothic, and Wiene makes excellent use of lighting, shadows and silhouettes.
Caligari may be Wiene’s crowning achievement, but The Hands Of Orlac is proof if need be that he was a talented director in his own right, with one of Veidt’s greatest silent performances. It has a few problems but by and large it remains a measured, visually impressive film, and proved hugely influential on the horror genre.
New commentary with author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman; Brand new video essay by filmmakers David Cairns and Fiona Watson; An alternate presentation of The Hands of Orlac, a presentation of the film featuring alternate takes of certain scenes. Includes a musical score by Paul Mercer; Scene comparisons highlighting differences between the two versions; A Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by Philip Kemp, and Tim Lucas.