Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Hands of Orlac

Why, you’re right—they are on backwards.

Back when the concept of organ transplants qualified as science fiction, novelist Maurice Renard wrote a thriller called Les Mains d’Orlac. Call it a bastard offspring of Frankenstein; its plot revolved around the old theme of Science Giving Us Stuff We Shouldn’t Have, in this particular case restoring severed body parts. Like a vigorous bastard, it has gone on to sire a whole subgenre of sci-fi/horror films, from its American remake Mad Love in 1935 through The Thing with Two Heads in 1972 to innumerable modern B-films. Hands, heads, eyeballs… you get home from the hospital and get the bandages off and things seem to be going so well, until your new body part turns out to be possessed by unspeakable evil. Or opens a vortex into a dimension of demons. It’s always some damn thing, isn’t it?

Les Mains d’Orlac was filmed in 1924 as Orlacs Hände, directed by Robert Weine, who had also directed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari four years earlier. Conrad Veidt, now minus the Tim Burton hairdo he wore as Cesare the Somnambulist in Caligari, played Paul Orlac. Paul, a neurasthenic with immense crystalline eyes, is married to Yvonne, a fellow neurasthenic with immense crystalline eyes. They have an idyllic marriage in a house filled with flowers, and a sex life apparently revolving around a lot of foreplay involving the hands. Uh-Oh.

But Paul, being a concert pianist (Uh-Oh!), has to go on tours to earn the money to maintain their love nest, while the little wife pines away at home dreaming of the next time Hubby will return to run his adorable hands (Uh-Oh!!) over her swooning body. She goes to welcome him home at the train station, only to learn that there has been a terrible train wreck. A grim and well-directed sequence follows, as Yvonne and her chauffeur join the frantic relatives searching through the wreckage for survivors. Paul is located at last, a bloody mess, and stretchered off to some sort of private hospital where an eminent surgeon is eagerly awaiting the delivery of the body of a freshly-guillotined notorious murderer for study.  Just then Paul is brought into the emergency room and the doctor, after having a look at him, informs Yvonne that Paul should recover from the skull fracture, but unfortunately his hands…

“His hands!” screams Yvonne. “He’s a pianist! You’ve got to save his hands!”

UH-OH.

I shan’t tell any more for fear of spoilers, because of course you’d never guess what happens next on your own, would you? Of course not. But there is some rather neat crime-novel story machination and psychological suspense before the plot resolution. Veidt is brilliant as Paul, especially in his growing horror at his situation, managing to give his hands alien personalities of their own, stiff and bizarrely protruding from his shirt cuffs. To evoke Tim Burton’s work again for a moment, this is the sort of role in which Johnny Depp would excel today. 

Technically this is an Expressionist film, though the story’s locations include only one dark medieval set with oppressive geometry. It differs from Caligari in the pacing, too. Caligari shuttles between dreamlike slowness and a rattling fast pace, and is the more effective film for that. All reaction times in Orlac are slowed, drawn out to the point of audience irritation. The film is 110 minutes long, largely due to an overdependence on slow takes and long, long, loooooong horrified disbelieving stares. The Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung has worked diligently to restore the film to something close to its original length, but in this one case some judicious trimming would have done us all a favor.

Their print is in fairly bad shape, too, nothing like the clean digital restorations we have grown accustomed to seeing. It’s puzzling that they let this one out of the vault in such a condition. Possibly we can expect a real restoration soon, maybe at Orlac’s 90th anniversary in 2014?

Don’t wait until then, though. For all its flaws, The Hands of Orlac really is a seminal film, and if you’re partial to that particular B-movie subgenre of Demon Body Parts, you really ought to see it. But use your good eyes. You know, the pair that don’t inexplicably display the last moments of murder victims.

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