CAPSULE: One of the nearly forgotten films of the German (actually in this case Austrian) Expressionist period is the Conrad Veidt version of THE HANDS OF ORLAC. This is a seminal horror melodrama about a pianist whose hands are destroyed in a train crash and are replaced by hands taken from an executed murderer. The hands come to have a life of their own. This film was remade as the until- recently also rare MAD LOVE with Colin Clive as Orlac and with one of Peter Lorre's juiciest roles. This original version runs a little slowly by modern standards, but it has one of the great performances by the under-appreciated Conrad Veidt. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Some of the very best horror films of all time came from Germany between World War I and World War II. The German Expressionist movement gave us films like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, THE GOLEM, WAXWORKS, METROPOLIS, and M. The films of German Expressionist movement are characterized by distorted atmospheric scenery was used to reflect the twists in the minds of the characters in the story. The style was applied to other social dramas like the so-called "Street Films," but some of the great classic horror films were the mainstay of the movement. The influence of German Expressionism can be felt in the Universal horror films of the 1930s, many of which were made by German Expressionist filmmakers who fled the politics of Europe.
One of the classics of Expressionism that has not until recently been available in a watchable form is THE HANDS OF ORLAC starring Conrad Veidt. Most of us know Veidt mostly as playing villains, especially Nazis like Major Strasser in CASABLANCA. Veidt was actually a great horror actor. He was Germany's equivalent of Lon Chaney, Sr. He was not Jewish, but his wife was, so they fled the Nazis and came to the United States. But Veidt never had the career in the United States that he deserved. One of his best films after coming to the US was THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, in which his face is carved into a permanent grin. He had to convey emotions with his eyes, while the view of his whole face denied them. But getting back to THE HANDS OF ORLAC, this one of his great horror roles from his period of making films in Europe. This was the first film to use the idea that body parts might take on a life of their own, an idea used several times since. The film was remade as MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre. The story was again remade in 1960 under the titles THE HANDS OR ORLAC and THE HANDS OF A STRANGLER. But its influence can be felt in many films like THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS.
Veidt plays a concert pianist who is in a train collision. He loses his hands, but while is unconscious a notorious murderer is guillotined and Orlac's doctors transplant the hands from the corpse onto Orlac's wrists. Orlac awakes with the hands of a killer at the end of his arms. What is more, the hands seem to have a life of their own. Orlac is fixated on these hands. 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. The films picks up a little as he becomes fascinated with a strange knife, supposedly that of the killer who provided his hands. But the knife is now the murder weapon in new crimes where the fingerprints left behind are those of the guillotined killer. 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.
THE HANDS OF ORLAC was based on the book LES MAINS D'ORLAC by Maurice Renard. Robert Wiene four years earlier directed THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), really the first film of the German Expressionist Movement. That film was written Carl Mayer among others and its star was Conrad Veidt. THE HANDS OF ORLAC reunites the director, actor, and writer of that film.
The story is bizarre enough for modern audiences, but the pacing is a little slow. While it is Expressionist, it uses very different visual approaches than did THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. In the earlier film much of the psychological distortion is in the geometry of the sets. Doors were strange irregular geometric figures. Buildings leaned. There were no right angles in any of the sets. In THE HANDS OF ORLAC the buildings would fit into the real world, but they are overpoweringly big at times. Orlac's father lives in an imposing castle with high doorway arches. Hospital scenes also seem to be in rooms of infinite dimension. Much of the mood comes from atmospheric lighting.
The Criterion Collection contains an interesting account of how there are two different negatives. One made for domestic release and one for international. Some scenes were shot at the same time of the same performance but at a slightly different angle because the negatives came from two different cameras set side-by-side for the filming; other times they used two different takes. In some cases they were edited differently so some scenes are actually quite different in the domestic and international versions. In any case, this is one of the great pivotal films of early history of the horror film and it has been too hard to find for too long. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10, though comparing it to modern horror films is very much an apples-to oranges sort of comparison.
Film credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0015202/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper