Inspired by the comments section from my last post, I’m continuing the “murderous hands” theme with Robert Wiene’s 1924 silent film, The Hands of Orlac, the story of a concert pianist whose hands are destroyed in a terrible train accident. He receives the transplanted hands of an executed murderer as replacements, but rather than play the piano, these hands apparently want to continue the bad habits of their previous owner… .
I liked it — a lot. I liked it even better than Wiene’s more famous film, the 1920 Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which I also watched the same evening that I watched Orlac).
Caligari, in addition to its Expressionist credentials, is considered by many to be the first horror movie. Orlac, despite its plot, is not a horror movie, but proto-noir. The German Expressionist filmmakers had a big influence on the style of what became film noir (and also on the content of noir, with movies like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse); you can really see this in Orlac‘s play of light and shadow.
Expressionist film (the Expressionist movement in general) focused on subjective, emotional reality rather than physical reality; to convey this inner reality, Expressionist filmmakers and actors borrowed technique from dance, theater, and the visual arts. Caligari, for instance, is famous for its weird, surreal sets, with their crooked perspectives and their painted-on splashes of light and shadow, as well as for its fantastical costuming and makeup. Orlac relied more on lighting, on artful scene arrangements and framing, and on sets that were more theatrical than naturalistic (though not surreal). It reminded me of Akira Kurosawa.
Kurosawa played with techniques from Noh and Kabuki theater, most famously in his stylized 1957 version of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, but also in his early (1945) film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, which is based on the Kabuki play Kanjinchō, which is in turn based on the Noh play Ataka, about the twelfth century warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In Tiger’s Tail you can already see the hallmarks of the Kurosawa style: the posed tableaus and geometrical arrangements of actors, as well as the digressions into folk or classical song and dance so common in his Samurai pictures. The sets in those two movies were fairly theatrical, too — probably for budget reasons, with Tiger’s Tail. Think, also, of the bare white sands of the courtyard where witnesses gave testimony in Rashomon (I think he used that same courtyard for the penultimate scene of Hidden Fortress, too), and the Gondos’ wide, clean living room in High and Low.
Note actress Isuzu Yamada’s facial expression and exaggerated makeup, which together are meant to suggest a classic Noh mask.
You can watch the entire clip here; it’s tremendous.
But maybe I’m only reminded of Kurosawa because I watch so much of him. Anyway. Back to Orlac.
It can be hard for a modern viewer to watch a silent film; the acting seems so broad and exaggerated — I suppose it had to be, since they had to convey plot without dialogue. It’s even worse in an Expressionist film (I’m thinking of Caligari), where the actors were pretty much trying to over-emote. In Orlac, we get a broad range of styles.
Conrad Veidt plays pianist Paul Orlac, and he’s terrific. Veidt played the somnambulist murderer Cesare in the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (he also went on to play Major Strausser in Casablanca, much later), and I have to say he didn’t have a whole lot to do as Cesare, besides look stiff. His portrayal of Orlac is much more interesting; he’s like a dancer, the way he uses his body and his face. In the scene below, Orlac has just come home after the transplant operation. He approaches his piano for the first time since the accident. Just watch the way he walks over and kisses it. It’s ballet.
By the way, did you notice the music? When Orlac’s hands touch the keys, the piano in the score falls silent. More about the soundtrack, later.
Alexandra Sorina plays Yvonne Orlac, Paul’s wife. I thought she was a bit too over the top, even for a silent film actress, but she definitely portrayed her physical longing for her absent husband well. And that’s important, because it’s a key detail that the Orlacs’ love for each other isn’t just emotional or companionable; it’s very physical. At the beginning of the movie, Yvonne is reading a letter from Paul, who is on the road, on a concert tour.
But after the transplant, Paul fears to touch his wife with his new murderer’s hands. Though it turns out he might want to release that tension in other ways… .
Hans Homma plays Dr. Serral, the surgeon who did the transplant operation. His acting style was subtle and surprisingly modern. No exaggerated facial expressions or body language, no chewing on the scenery. There’s a scene early in the movie where Dr. Serral has to tell Mrs. Orlac that Paul’s hands have been destroyed. She clutches at the doctor’s lab coat collar in a frenzy — “For God’s sake, save his hands! His hands are his life!” The doctor simply puts one hand over hers, trying to to loosen her grip, while his eyes dart in the opposite direction, embarrassed. It’s perfect.
Carmen Cartellieri does a nice job as the Orlacs’ maid, Regine, and so does Fritz Kortner, as Nera, an orderly at Dr. Serral’s sanitarium.
The scenes of the train wreck are impressive. It looks huge, with smoke billowing everywhere, people running all over the place in the dead of night with torches in their hands, lots and lots of stretchers and lots and lots of victims. It’s like something out of a war movie.
And finally, the music! I love the score to this release; it was composed by violinist Paul Mercer, who also performs on the soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the score is mostly violin and viola, with a bit of piano and kettledrum. It’s a style of movie scoring I like a lot: think Philip Glass’s scores for Mishima and for Dracula and Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (entirely strings!). Mercer makes some really interesting choices, too.
There is no piano at the beginning of the movie; there might be just a hint of it during the brief scene showing Orlac in concert, but Orlac’s piano playing is scored almost entirely with strings, plucked to imitate the piano. Violin and viola imitate the sound of the train on the tracks, and the sound of the train’s whistle; we don’t hear piano again until after the crash, as reports of the accident spread. The piano appears lightly in various dramatic scenes after that, and notably as the solo instrument when Dr. Serrat unwraps Orlac’s new hands. We hear the piano as Paul leans over to kiss his piano after he returns home, and as he sits down to play; then, as I mentioned earlier, when his fingers touch the keys, the piano is replaced by the string instruments. The scoring is beautiful, and really effective.
Will Paul ever play again? Or are his hands still instruments of their former owner, possessing Paul and turning him into a ruthless killer? I won’t give it away; I’ll just say: it’s not horror, it’s noir.
You can buy the soundtrack from Mercer’s Bandcamp site, here (I just did). I’m intrigued by some of his other albums, too.
Stills from The Hands of Orlac were extracted by me, from the Internet Archive’s copy of the movie. The still from Throne of Blood is from movieclips.com.