Classic Review: Orlac Hande (1924)

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In 1924, Robert Wiene made one of the first German expressionist films. It was called Orlacs Hande (or Orlac’s Hands). It is the story that has been redone and redone some more by just about every popular television show in existence. By this distinction alone, it is one of the more important films to come out in the early years of cinema.

Already famous, Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) had found his mark and stamped it on cinema. His reoccurring cryptic and unsettling atmosphere have yet to have been surpassed and this film is no exception to his craft.

Orlacs Hande is set in a then contemporary Germany. Speaking volumes about society, the human psyche and blood lust as a human trait. This faux-horror adjusts from its initial eerie atmosphere to a somewhat romantic/somewhat chilling one. The transition is unwavering and Wiene’s perception of this landmark story is (without exaggeration) perfect.

The story is about world renowned composer Stephen Orlac (Conrad Veidt) who has just completed his final tour across Europe with his symphony. On his train ride home to Berlin, Germany there is a collision on the tracks – a train adjacent to the one he was riding flew off its course and went head on with his. Fortunately for Mr. Orlac, he was sitting far enough back from the train to be dead upon impact. Unfortunately, he did receive many a skull fracture and had his hands dismantled. Comatose, his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) pleads with the doctor to save his hands because “His hands are his life”. So the doctor, who appears to be a little bit crazed and perhaps an evil genius of sorts (dun dun dun) saves Orlac’s hands. Well, not in the sense that everyone would like to believe. Mr. Orlac had a hand transplant. The hands that he now has are thanks to the German judicial system and the man that they executed – one murderer named Vasseur. With the hands of the murderer, Mr. Orlac is frantic. The moment he touches someone he gets a sudden urge to kill them. He tries to play the piano but the notes come out poor and uncoordinated; he tries to re-write the note he wrote to his wife before he left for Germany, but it comes out sloppy and even the pen doesn’t work as it did in his previous hands. Stephen Orlac is a different man because of the hands he now has.

To add onto the nightmare that has become of Mr. Orlac’s life, he is now haunted by the ghost of Vasseur (Fritz Kortner). Or perhaps this ghost is all to real for anyone to imagine. He is the only one that can see him, but is that because of mere coincidence or is he hallucinating?

Taking a brief moment to put emphasis on the masterful performance by Conrad Veidt. Even in modern cinema actors are faced with the daunting task of being not only convincing, but also falling deep into the skin of the character they are portraying themselves. This, with the ability to say what they feel and feel what they say. Conrad Veidt did not have this advantage. His entire performance consists of body language and bewildered facial expressions. With every passing scene, he digs deeper and deeper into the psyche of a man who has lost everything and is on the verge of picking up where the deceased murderer left off. A man with no control over his will. Conrad Veidt cements his place in cinema with this singular performance that could have been a caricature if not controlled with the deftness of a true auteur.

Orlacs Hande takes a huge turn in the final chapter of the story. It puts everything that we know about ourselves, the people we love and our perception of existence as we know it into question. Is everything as it seems? Are we really the well-kept society we’d like to believe? Does our heart and mind conqueror our most absurd beliefs? Or will we forever fall fatefully into things that we have no control over? Orlacs Hande is a 1920’s German expressionist film that still holds weight in contemporary society – a mark of a true classic film.

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