Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac has been filmed several times, with the best-known version being possibly the extremely good 1935 MGM version under the title Mad Love, and starring Peter Lorre. The original screen adaptation was however the 1924 Germans film by Robert Wiene, the celebrated director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
A great concert pianist, Paul Orlac, is injured in a train crash. His hands are damaged beyond repair. A brilliant surgeon performs a risky experimental surgical operation on him - transplanting onto him the hands of an executed murderer. Orlac soon becomes convinced that the hands have some sort of life of their own, and that they will lead him inexorably to evil. And in fact Orlac finds himself the prime suspect in a murder investigation, with the evidence against him seemingly incontrovertible. While the plot is quite similar to the later Mad Love, there are some crucial differences. Since they involve spoilers I’m not going to tell you what those differences are!
This film doesn’t have the extreme Expressionistic style and deliberately artificial painted sets of Caligari. It still manages a very Expressionist feel, achieved mainly by the lighting, and by the acting. Conrad Veidt’s performance as Orlac is very extreme. The movie has some of the same nightmare feel that Caligari has, and Veidt in particular is like a man trapped in a nightmare from which he cannot awake.
If you’re not familiar with the silent cinema of horror and the fantastic The Hands of Orlac is probably not the best place to start. The exaggerated and stylised acting style takes some getting used to.
But if, like me, you’re a fan of classic German Expressionist movies then this one is a must-see.
It’s included in the Kino German Expressionism DVD boxed set. For the age of the movie the picture quality is quite acceptable.