There are many fears that humanity possesses but perhaps one of the deepest, one of the darkest, is the fear of ourselves.
The fear of our own body and mind and the idea that we may lose control, lose ourselves or worse still someone else might take us over, is a primal one and can be seen played out in many horror genre’s from gaslight thrillers to demonic possession movies.
Perhaps the best cinematic arena for exploration into this disturbing distrust in our own fragile flesh is in the body horror genre where films such as Raw, Possessor, The Thing and many marvellous David Cronenberg movies among others disturb our minds and turn our stomachs with stories of our own skin repulsively rebelling against us.
One of the earliest examples of this fear can be found in the 1924 silent epic The Hands of Orlac which is adapted from the book by Maurice Renard. Telling the troublesome tale of a pianist who has his hands amputated and replaced by those of an executed murderer, the bare bones of the story may sound very familiar seeing as they have entered popular culture via the various retellings both as official adaptations and urban legends.
Remade as Mad Love in 1935 and with Christopher Lee in 1960’s The Hands of Orlac it also inspired a number of other flicks from 1946 The Beast with Five Fingers to Oliver Stone’s The Hand in 1981 to Les Mains de Roxana in 2012 where it is a violinist that receives the hands of a killer.
1924’s The Hands of Orlac reunites The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari director Robert Wiene back together with the great Conrad Veidt (Casablanca, Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs) in another perfect example of German Expressionism that has far more power and impact than you may expect from such an early example of cinema.
Veidt plays Paul Orlac a famed piano player who is horrifically injured in a tragic train crash. His wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) rushes to the chaotic scene to try and save her love pulling him from the wreckage and taking him to a doctor who does everything he can to save Paul including removing his shattered hands and replacing them with another mans.
Waking from his recovery confused Paul faces mixed emotions when he learns he has survived and will be able to play again all thanks to the donner of his new digits, the convicted murder Vasseur who was beheaded for his terrible crimes.
Extremely troubled by the operation and his hands previous owner Paul slips further and further into paranoia as he becomes convinced his new hands have a life of their own and a will to kill. Unable to play piano or touch his wife for fear of his murderous urges he spirals into depression and despair just when things somehow suddenly get worse.
Made well before such procedures were possible The Hands of Orlac predates the popular panic over surgical transplants that still exists today and is one of the first films to feature the concept of hands with a will of their own a motif hilariously and brutally played out in Evil Dead on a number of occasions.
Blending elements of grand guignol and classic thriller Wiene’s direction is exceptional and his innovation impressive. Early scenes such as Yvonne’s frantic night drive which is eerily illuminated via the cars headlights and the wonderfully well realised train crash set which is surprisingly realistic give the film a far more modern feel.
The story too twists and turns keeping the audience on edge and unsure if Paul’s mistrust in his own body is based on a scientific reality, a supernatural interference or a simple mental breakdown.
Added to the idea that his hands could force him to commit acts of violence is a more subtle sexual subtext. Interestingly his wife yearns to feel his touch and is distraught when he refuses to see her implying Paul is uncomfortable with the other carnal urges he feels compelled by.
Conrad Veidt is excellent as Paul, a man uncomfortable in his own skin and out of control of his own appendages. Oddly the over the top acting of the period actually works perfectly to emphasise Paul’s plight seeing as the physical performance was more important in silent cinema than the vocal making the actors masters of their own body.
Veidt moves stiff armed and spread fingered around the room staring wide eyed at the alien objects grafted to his arms. His hands do indeed seem possessed and entirely apart from the rest of him. He is constantly horrified by himself and unsure if he can trust his own actions, a concept that continues as the plot thickens and consistently strikes a deep chord in the viewer.
Available for the first time on home video in the UK in Eureka Entertainment’s special Blu-ray edition The Hands of Orlac comes with more than a hand full of extras including new feature length audio commentary with Stephen Jones and critic Kim Newman and courtesy of the F. W. Murnau Foundation, a presentation of the film struck from a different print source, featuring alternate takes of certain scenes.
A classic of silent cinema that introduced us to a tried and tested trope of the genre, The Hands of Orlac is a body horror that still unsettles its audience and manages to feel far more modern than a movie made nearly 100 years ago should.