Review for The Hands of Orlac
Orlac is a concert pianist who is involved in a horrific train crash which results in his hands being amputated. These are replaced by a recently executed murderer. The hands soon turn to their previous owner’s murderous ways and Orlac must fight the madness that ensues.
Based on Maurice Renard’s novel, you would be forgiven for thinking this story came straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. In fact, I do believe they did a similar story, but it is such a cliché that even shows as diverse as The Simpsons have done their own versions. When you consider that transplants of this kind would not occur until the 1990s it is amazing that this seemed such a simple thing.
Conrad Veidt, who has almost become of my favourite actors of this time, is just wonderful in this role coming after his performance in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and before his amazing Joker-inspiring performance in The Man Who Laughs I felt that this was a very nuanced performance and his ability to emote without the use of speech is just fascinating. The rest of the cast are fine, but without Veidt’s masterful performance it would have felt flat.
The film itself is very enjoyable and seeing the descent into madness that Orlac goes on I was surprised by how subtle as lot of it was. Obviously, if that had been made today it would have been full of blood and guts, but the horror aided greatly by the creepy music and perfect cinematography works perfectly.
There are three ways the film can be watched, with original German Intertitles (with English subtitles) and score by Johannes Kalitzke, an alternative cut found in the Murnau Foundation with English Intertitles and score by Paul Mercer or the original version with Commentary.
Personally the one thing that originally did put me off is the length of the film. I am so used to silent films or films before 1930 clocking in around the hour mark that when I saw this was 94 minutes and the alternate cut is 112 Minutes it felt like this would be a bit too much. However, the film is actually enjoyable enough to warrant multiple viewing.
What also helps is the Scene Comparison extra which really does show that these are almost two different cuts of the same movie. It is explained how film at the time was often done with two cameras filming side by side and this meant that some of the shots are at different angles or with the camera cranked at a different framerate and so this was fascinating to look back. This isn’t the usual trying to find the extra two minutes of footage of a Director’s cut, but really does show almost two cuts of the same film.
Extremities is a video essay regarding the making of the film which is great at looking at how the film came to be made and looking at those involved in it. This is complemented by the always excellent Kim Newman and Stephen Jones providing a commentary on the film.
Hands of Orlac is a classic of the Silent era and the more I watch of them the more I wish that people did make films like this now (and no The Artists doesn’t count). There is so much class and style in how shots are composed and in how the actors perform that I am often captivated by what I am seeing.
For many years, my knowledge of the silent era consisted of Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin films or Nosferatu, but watching films like this has really allowed me to appreciate just how far we have come. Bear this in mind, this film is 3 years away from being One Hundred Years Old. This is how far cinema has come and it is really important, especially if you study films to look back on its humble beginnings to really appreciate it.
Be sure to get your hands on this one!