The Hands Of Orlac is one of those movies you may already know about without even realising it. The central theme – a character having a transplant, and feeling as though they are being possessed and inexorably overtaken by characteristics of the donor – is one which has in fact been played out many times ever since this original adaptation of Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel was released almost a century ago.
Besides a number of remakes and other versions – including 1935’s Mad Love, which starred Peter Lorre, or a 1960 Anglo-French co-production, featuring Christopher Lee – the main notion has featured in a number of different ways in both TV and film. It has inspired a number of features, such as Hands Of A Stranger and The Beast With Five Fingers, as well as a rather more erotic version in 1971’s Percy, centring around a singularly intimate organ transplant.
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The 1965 British portmanteau chiller Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors loosely took inspiration from the story for one of its segments, and Steve Coogan’s horror parody Dr. Terrible’s House Of Horrible had an episode in which a dancer who has lost his feet in an accident receives replacements which have a murderous intent. Even The Simpsons in one of the annual Treehouse Of Horror instalments did a spoof – ‘Hell Toupée’ – which saw Homer taken over by a hair transplant from the career criminal Snake, who had been executed.
Given how ubiquitous the notion has become, it is somewhat surprising to find the originator of the idea in popular fiction is not more widely known. Renard’s writings come under the umbrella of merveilleux scientifique, which comprises a blend of the scientific and mystical, combining elements of science fiction, body horror, mythological fantasy, detective stories, and Gothic elements. Despite Les Mains d’Orlac’s longevity in various different forms, Renard’s involvement in it has all but been forgotten.
Renard was a contemporary of H.G. Wells, and some of their works overlapped and covered similar territory. For example, Renard wrote a The Island Of Doctor Moreau-esque tale, in which a mad scientist experimented upon humans, creating hybrids not just with animals, but also plants and machines. He also looked at the idea of a person becoming invisible, in L’Homme Qui Voulait Être Invisible (The Man Who Wanted To Be Invisible). Unlike Wells, however, Renard would seem destined to languish in obscurity.
In 1924’s The Hands Of Orlac, a concert pianist – Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) – is involved in a train collision, which results in the amputation of both hands. Following the entreaties of Orlac’s wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina), a surgeon performs a new and experimental type of surgery, where Orlac ends up having new hands transplanted from the recently-executed murderer, Vasseur. Orlac finds himself consumed by the fear that those murderous impulses remain, and are beginning to control him, leading to a descent into madness.
The film was directed by Robert Wiene, whose most famous work was 1920’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, in which Veidt also appeared. Much like the originator of Les Mains d’Orlac, Wiene also seems to have been overlooked by posterity, and his name is not one which would readily be known to anyone bar dedicated cineastes; his countrymen and fellow directors Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau have managed to achieve a level of recognition which is sadly denied to Wiene, despite being behind two iconic motion pictures.
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As with Dr. Caligari, Wiene uses some elements of German Expressionism, such as the use of twisted angles in some of the sets, creating a nightmarish feel at times, along with his lighting and deployment of shadows for atmosphere. Here, however, Wiene also tries to mix in naturalism, providing a sharp contrast with the supernatural elements at play; he also builds up a palpable eroticism between Orlac and his wife, with a kind of smouldering latent sensuality, which is a genuine surprise to see in a film of the era.
Veidt – who is most likely best known for his starring role in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs – has to show the gradual mental deterioration and inner conflict of Orlac without the use of speech. Although you could argue that at times Veidt’s body language and performance border on the histrionic, it does have to be remembered that as this was a silent movie, his physicality had to transcend language, and he needed to find a whole new vocabulary through which to convey Orlac’s inner turmoil, as the body horror slowly unfolds.
At the time of both the novel and the film, the very concept of an operation of this kind was the stuff of fantasy; indeed, the first ever hand transplant did not in fact take place until 1998, which is some seven decades on. However, The Hands Of Orlac is only science fiction in the same somewhat loose way in which Frankenstein is too; in actuality, The Hands Of Orlac uses the transplant operation as the jumping off point for an exploration of a sense of alienation and loss, with the violation of the individual, and what it means for the sanctity of one’s self.
This latest release in Eureka Entertainment’s Masters Of Cinema range brings us two versions of the film – a newly-restored version, with German intertitles; and an alternate presentation, from a print held by the Murnau Foundation, which is a different edit of the feature. Back in the days of silent movies, it was common practice to actually have two cameras being lined up alongside each other, in order to be able to create two negatives – one for its domestic release, and the other for international markets.
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Although the convention was to have both negatives cut near-identically, this was not always the case, and in the Murnau Foundation’s print, not only are alternative takes used, but footage is at some points sequenced differently, and some of the scenes run longer. Using footage filmed in adjacent cameras also means even when exactly the same takes were used, they do not actually look identical, due to them having been framed differently, or just lined up from an alternately-aligned angle, which makes this print both look and feel very distinct.
The main version of the movie has a commentary recorded by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, discussing the original novel and the film in further detail, with plenty of convivial bonhomie in evidence. There is also a short video, pointing out the main differences between the two prints. Rounding out the special features on the disc is a featurette by David Cairns and Fiona Watson, looking at both the book and the movie. Adding more flesh to the bones is the disc’s booklet, with informative short essays by Philip Kemp and Tim Lucas, exploring both Renard and Wiene in greater depth.
With such care and attention being lavished on The Hands Of Orlac by Eureka, this is definitely a release you will want to get your (or, perhaps, somebody else’s) hands on.
The Hands Of Orlac is out on Blu-ray on 14th June from Eureka Entertainment.