Reaching back to time’s beginnings, Orlacs Hände (1924), forever touch the future, but at what price? Robert Wiene’s cinematic interpretation of Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac (1920), cannot be neatly labeled expressionist in spite of its creation near the end of Weimar’s expressionist movement. Certainly there are pronounced aspects of this style, such as chiaroscuro, backlit distortions, hallucinogenic transitions and rare geometrics in the form of tracks and fences, but more often there are intrusions of Wilhelmine pictorialism, theatrical melodrama and realism. There are also impinging aspects of surrealism, horror, futuristic film noir and the modern psychological thriller. Examples of this hybrid form include a newsreel train disaster lapsing into smoky pictorialism, Vasseur’s phantasmagorical yet real head and fist and the endless Kafkaesque corridors of Old Orlac’s abode.
If we look at Orlacs Hände in relation to three earlier films, we see the latter transform into something novel. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Genuine (1920) and Raskolnikow (1923) all display classic expressionism, with visuals in Caligari being the most extreme in terms of cubic-imaginary sets and shadowed contrast wreaking havoc with the mind. However, Wiene does not shoot in urban decay, but rather, in-studio. Genuine follows the mirrored, studio-funhouse of Caligari, though certain scenes feel more avant-garde-surreal than expressionist. Two notable scenes: the slave market and back alley, extend from Wilhelmine realism to noir and a clock-face atop a skeleton body reaches far into post-modernism. A disembodied hand foreshadows Orlacs Hände, while Genuine’s contortions lead directly into Conrad Veidt’s tortured convolutions as Paul Orlac. In Raskolnikow, new styles infringe as backgrounds blur or blacken, accentuating close-up portraiture of the character’s mind. Though scenes at the police station, in the pub, and bedroom are shot in-studio, they are not strictly expressionist, exhibiting documentary style and noir.
In a film replete with complexity, Orlacs Hände appears simple. Surviving a cataclysmic train wreck, pianist Paul Orlac loses his hands and transplantation becomes necessary. Unfortunately, Dr. Serral’s only donor is the freshly guillotined killer, Vasseur. In this ghostly saga of blackmail, murder and obsessive fear, Orlac must wrest his soul from a madman and control hands with a mind of their own.
Widely released in Germany on January 31, 1925, in Austria, March 6, 1925 and throughout the USA, June 4, 1928, Wiene’s film receives acclaim as indicated in the following reviews published in 1925. The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung states that, “Wiene matches Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang and, Karl Grune [and] surpasses them,” while Die Filmwelt lauds Wiene’s success “in uniting two film principles: suspense-packed action and subtle psychology. The train disaster is just as brilliant an achievement as, for instance, the scenes of Orlac’s delusion” (quoted from Jung and Schatzberg 1999: 115). It is only later that critical decline prevails when many, like John D. Barlow in his German Expressionist Film (1982) diminish Orlac to “a potpourri of typically expressionist elements,” and failed mimicry of Caligari (Barlow quoted from Jung and Schatzberg 1999: 116). Others, like Francis Courtade and Jürgen Kasten rightfully deduce that Orlac is a good deal more than mere expressionism, though they seem uncertain as to Wiene’s intentions and film form.
Two doppelganger motifs provide suspense and emphasize personality fractures. The most obvious is Yvonne, Orlac’s wife, and her maid, Régine. Blinded by the likeness between these two women, we might not tell them apart were it not for attire. Intriguingly, Régine also loves Orlac, announcing him “our master” to Yvonne. The feeling seems mutual, as exemplified in a seduction scene engineered by the con man Nera. Régine proves her love by betraying Nera and offering life-saving testimony. An abstract, second doppelganger motif is personified by Yvonne’s contorted hands and demented persona, foreshadowing and mimicking Orlac’s own.
The concept of body parts expressing one’s soul, apparent in the film’s title, is displayed in the opening scene as Orlac plays his final night on tour. His hands are equally important to his marriage, as we read in his letter to Yvonne promising that in “just one more night and day […] his hands […] will glide over her hair [and] body” again. Later, Yvonne begs Serral to save Orlac’s hands because they “are his life” and Orlac asks, “Will these hands ever play?”
In The Haunted Screen (first published in French in 1952), Lotte Eisner unflatteringly proclaims Wiene a second rate filmmaker, who claims greatness (Eisner 1973: 17). Yet his cinematic material and stylistic innovations inspire three remakes: Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935), Edmond T. Gréville’s Hands of Orlac (1960) and Newton Arnold’s Hands of a Stranger (1962), and continue to influence film and television to this day.
Unlike Wiene’s original, all three later film versions emphasize the doctor’s mistreatment of the victim-patient, most extremely portrayed by Peter Lorre in 1935, as the doctor’s descent into diabolical madness upstages Orlac’s own. In all versions including Wiene’s original, Orlac at times seems to transmute into a murderous appendage of the underlying spirit of the hands, though extensions of the doctor-creator motif are more implied in the Gréville version and questionable in Orlacs Hände. However, all versions evoke queries as to the doctor’s ethics and God-play. When Serral ideates a plan to save Orlac’s soul through transplantation, there is no evidence of diabolical power. However, Wiene is subtle, compelling the viewer into closer observation and interpretation. There is no disputing Orlac is the captive of his newly transplanted hands and that his fear makes him Nera’s easy victim, but this becomes complicated when we realize that most characters in this film are equally imprisoned (the name Vasseur means vassal) including Nera in his life of crime. It is questionable whether Serral is (even subtly) motivated by ambition and believes like that, like the favored angel Lucifer, he is above God. We recall Orlac’s plea that Serral remove the hands that “demand blood…crimes…murder” and the doctor’s kind yet godly response, “Rise up…the spirit rules the hands.” The doctor’s impatience intensifies in the 1962 version with, “Stand up…open your eyes.” There are also those nagging realizations that Serral never asks Yvonne’s permission to either graft a murderer’s hands, or his intention to transplant.
In the end, Orlac’s “clean hands” free him, but will there ever be order as long as brilliant men like Serral strive forward at the expense of others, wreaking evil with intended good?
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based filmmaker, film scholar, writer and critic.
Eisner, Lotte (1973), The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Jung, Uli and Walter Schatzberg (1999), Beyond Caligari: Fhe Films of Robert Wiene, New York and London: Berghahn Books.