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.
Lady Macbeth, I mean Asaji, tries to wash the blood off her hands, in Throne of Blood
. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
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. Continue reading