The Hands of Orlac is a 1924 Austrian silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina and Fritz Kortner.
The film’s plot is based on the story Les Mains d’Orlac by Maurice Renard. Wiene had made his name as a director of Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and in The Hands of Orlac combined expressionist motifs with more naturalistic visuals.
There were two direct remakes: Mad Love (USA 1935) with Colin Clive and Peter Lorre, directed by Karl Freund. The Hands of Orlac (1960) with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee, directed by Edmond T. Gréville. In addition to these it has inspired a number of other films, Hands of a Stranger (1962) most directly, but see also The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), The Hand (1981) directed by Oliver Stone, and Les Mains de Roxana (2012).
Concert pianist Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) loses his hands in a horrible railway accident. His wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) pleads with a surgeon to try and save Orlac’s hands. The surgeon decides to try and transplant new hands onto Orlac, but the hands he uses are those of a recently executed murderer named Vasseur.
From that point forward, the pianist is tortured by the presence of a knife he finds at his house, just like that used by Vasseur, and the desire to kill. He believes that along with the murderer’s hands, he has also gained the murderer’s predisposition to violence. He confronts the surgeon, telling him to remove the hands, but the surgeon tries to convince him that a person’s acts are not governed by hands, but by the head and heart.
Orlac’s new hands are unable to play the piano and in time he and his wife run out of money. Creditors give them one more day to pay their bills. Yvonne goes to Paul’s father for money but is refused. Orlac himself then goes to see his father but finds he has been stabbed to death with the same knife-like Vasseur’s. He starts to think he himself committed the murder, and goes to a café for a drink. There he meets a man who claims he is Vasseur, who tells Orlac the same surgeon who did the hand transplant also transplanted a new head onto Vasseur’s body…
“Director Robert Wiene continued using surreal set design of early German supernatural cinema, which he’d helped pioneer in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, also starring Conrad Veidt. The oversized sets, dominated by simple shapes are partly obscured in the murk of the fading prints. But these sets are as unnatural and psychologically wearing as the acting. Not as surreal as in Caligari, but overly imposing and empty, stripped down to the essentials of the script. A music room, a piano. A bedroom, a bed. The patterns on the walls and the frames of the doorways dominate the sets.” Black Hole Reviews
“Like Mad Love, the more accessible American remake from 1935, the original film is undercut to some extent by a most un-Germanic “rational explanation” ending that backs timidly away from the most horrid implications of what we have seen up to then, but it compensates for that weakness with loads of oppressive atmosphere and a tortured performance from Conrad Veidt that the later version’s Colin Clive never comes within shouting distance of matching.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
“The Conrad Veidt version goes a little slowly as Orlac’s obsession with the hands consumes the man. There are long sequences of Veidt just staring in horror at the hands on his wrist […] Veidt plays the role so that the hands seem to be the biggest thing in the frame. They seem to dominate his entire body and the hands distort the entire posture of the body. The hands seem twisted almost to suggest tarantulas.” Leepers.us
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