Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac), directed by Robert Wiene in 1924 from the eponymous 1920 novel by French author Maurice Renard, has been re-adapted numerous times under various titles, and even as a straight remake with the same title in 1960. Nevertheless, the original version of The Hands of Orlac is still the most compelling version of the tale, even if the premise of the film requires more than a little wilful suspension of disbelief – that a pair of hands taken from a murderer can be successfully transplanted onto the arms of a pianist whose own hands have been cut off in an accident. As one of the very first “transplant” films, The Hands of Orlac was an enormous critical and commercial success when it was released, and eventually paved the way for an entire subgenre of films.

Today, the film itself is less often screened than Wiene’s most famous effort, the pioneering 1920 serial-killer film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), which also became an international sensation. Both films starred the great Conrad Veidt, long before he became indelibly etched in the public’s imagination as the manipulative Nazi Major Strasser in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1943), his second to last role on the screen before his untimely death from a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 50. In Caligari, Veidt plays the somnambulist killer Cesare; here, he plays the title character, Paul Orlac.

In The Hands of Orlac, Veidt’s character is initially young, smooth and confident in his work. A renowned concert pianist, his glittering future seems assured until he loses both his hands in a horrific train accident. His wife, Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina), desperate to help her husband, convinces a surgeon, Dr. Serral (Hans Homma), to graft the hands of a newly executed murderer, Vasseur, onto Orlac’s arms.

Miraculously, the operation is a success – or so it seems at the time. Orlac, however, is unaware of the fact that he now has the hands of a murderer, and, when he finds out their true origin from an anonymous note left in his bed, he reacts with horror. As time passes, Orlac becomes more and more convinced that the hands have a will of their own.

“These hands will never be allowed to touch another person” he vows upon being released from the hospital; this puts a definite strain on his relationship with Yvonne, who spends most of her time arranging flowers in the drawing room of their house, convinced that her husband will now be able to resume his brilliant career. Orlac, however, knows better, symbolically removing the wedding ring from his finger before leaving the hospital, from hands that are no longer his own.

Returning home, Orlac is a haunted figure, beset by fears that he can longer control his actions. He lovingly caresses the surface of his treasured grand piano, but when he sits down to play, the results are disastrous. Yvonne, standing in the doorway, turns away in grief; Orlac’s hands no longer have the gift of music. “I love you, I love you!” Yvonne piteously exclaims, but Orlac can’t bring himself to touch her. She hugs him with all her might, but Orlac resists, convinced that the future holds nothing but death and destruction.

After Orlac reads the details of Vasseur’s crimes in an old newspaper, he is more certain than ever that Vasseur’s malignant spirit possesses him. All at once, he has a vision of the killing, one that appears to seize him as if in a dream. Returning home, he hides the newspaper in his grand piano, and begins to succumb to Vasseur’s will, telling himself “I feel it comes from you … along the arms … until it reaches the soul … cold, terrible, relentless … damned, cursed hands!”

Soon, Orlac is mimicking the killer’s actions, stabbing the air with a knife as if in a trance, no longer a pianist, but a cold-blooded killer – his career in ruins.  He sends Yvonne away, but she remains faithful to him, still holding out hope for his recovery. Meanwhile, Orlac’s debts are mounting, and he is forced to take desperate measures – but the film’s narrative still holds a double surprise that doesn’t reveal itself until the very last frame has faded from the screen.

As in Caligari, Wiene favours an episodic structure for The Hands of Orlac, ending each scene in the film with a fade-out, and then introducing the next section with a fade-in. He composes most of his frames in wide shots to establish the location of the action, but Veidt’s performance, as in Caligari, seems to demand close-ups through the sheer intensity of his work in the film – so much so that one might argue that he is almost the co-director of the film. The sets are classic German Expressionist workmanship, lending an appropriately gloomy air to the film, and the mise en scène is equally shadowy and threatening; it seems as if the entire film takes place in a zone of darkness, which is only intermittently illuminated by dim shafts of light.

The cinematography, co-credited to Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin and coupled with Stefan Wessely and Hans Rouc’s funereal set design, gives the entire film an air of doom, desperation, and mounting terror. But even so, Veidt’s performance is clearly the main visual and aesthetic attraction here; his compelling descent into madness is a tour de force of silent film acting. Alone among the players, his performance seems modern, immediate and utterly convincing. It’s easy to see why Wiene wanted to work with him, especially after the success of Caligari. Indeed, one might argue that his work in The Hands of Orlac anticipates the sound era and indicates how he made the transition to the “talkies” so smoothly.

There are, as I said at the beginning of this essay, numerous remakes of the film – chief among them Mad Love (1935), directed by the gifted cinematographer Karl Freund with Peter Lorre as the surgeon character; Edmond T. Gréville’s The Hands of Orlac (1960), with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee; and Newton Arnold’s aptly titled Hands of a Stranger (1962), which takes a much more graphic approach to the source material (though, curiously, Renard’s source novel is never listed in the film’s credits).

But while the other films – with the arguable exception of Mad Love – have faded into the recesses of memory, the 1924 version of The Hands of Orlac continues to resonate in the public’s consciousness. As with many of the roles Conrad Veidt tackled in his still-too-short career, he put his unique signature upon the character of Paul Orlac, the tormented pianist, and made it his own, never to be equalled.

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Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, 1924 Austria/Germany 92 min)

Prod Co: Berolina Film GmbH, Pan Films Dir: Robert Wiene Scr: Louis Nerz, from the novel Les Mains d’Orlac by Maurice Renard Phot: Hans Androschin, Günther Krampf Prod Des: Stefan Wessely, Hans Rouc Prod Mgr: Karl Ehrlich

Cast: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas, Carmen Cartellieri, Hans Homma, Fritz Kortner

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (Rutgers University Press, 2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third revised and expanded edition was released in 2018. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema: A Brief History (2015) was featured on Turner Classic Movies as part of their series “Artists in Black and White.” Dixon’s newest books include A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (co-authored with Richard Graham (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); and The Life and Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (Auteur Press / Columbia University Press, 2017). Forthcoming is Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine from Palgrave / Macmillan in 2019.