The Hands of Orlac

March 17, 2015 at 1:14 am (7 Heads, Hands of Orlac) (, , , , )

The Hands of Orlac – 1924 – Austria

Orlac is a pianist whose hands are irreparably mangled in a train accident. To heal Orlac, a surgeon transplants the hands of Vasseur, an executed murderer. Orlac is disturbed when he learns of the surgery. His wedding ring does not fit. His handwriting is changed. He plays piano poorly. And worst of all, he is overcome with murderous impulses.

Orlac grows increasingly unhinged until strange circumstances lead him to kill his own father and go into hiding. Soon after, he is visited by the murderer Vasseur. It seems Vasseur was resurrected after his execution by guillotine. His head has been surgically reattached and he has mechanical hands. He blackmails Orlac concerning the murder of Orlac’s father. Unfortunately, this bizarre setup is undermined by a silly twist ending, trivializing the film’s pathos.

The Hands of Orlac uses its premise well. The hand transplant surgery is preposterous, as is the idea that the hands would retain the urges of their original owner. However, amid the film’s weird and melancholy atmosphere, it makes a poetic sort of sense. The Hands of Orlac is highly expressionistic, which is unsurprising since it was directed by Robert Wiene, director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Orlac is played by Conrad Veidt, also in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as well as The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Every aspect of The Hands of Orlac’s design contributes to its austere tone. The shadowy cavernous sets look inhospitable. The music is relentlessly morose and ominous. The special effects create sublimely eerie moments. And the slow pace makes the film occasionally agonizing to endure.

The Hands of Orlac has been remade twice, once as Mad Love (1935) and again as The Hands of Orlac (1960). However, its evocative premise probably inspired many other films, such as The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) and Hands of a Stranger (1962).

Rating: 7/10 Shrunken Heads. In a mostly unrelated note, Clive Barker published a short story in 1986 called The Body Politic. In the story, hands rebel against their owners, severing themselves and organizing into an army.

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