Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

Director: Robert Wiene                                   Writer: Louis Nerz
Film Score: Paul Mercer (2008)                       Cinematography: Günther Krampf
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner and Hans Homma

Another piece of classic silent cinema from famed German director Robert Wiene that also stars Conrad Veidt, the first, of course, being The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But the two films could not be more different. While Caligari was an Expressionist tour de force, filmed entirely in the studio with the lighting painted right onto the sets, Orlac is almost the opposite with an amazing display of exterior location shooting, realistic sets, and some of the most impressive night sequences ever to appear in silent film. The Hands of Orlac was adapted for the screen from the novel by Maurice Renard and was a big hit in Germany at the time. Unfortunately, it took three years for it to be distributed in the U.S. and by then the critical reception wasn’t nearly as positive.

Veidt plays a concert pianist who is injured in a train wreck on his way home one night. His wife pleads with the doctor to save his hands, and when the doctor sees the body of an executed murderer come into the hospital he takes it upon himself to graft the murderer’s hands onto Veidt to replace his damaged ones. As soon as he learns of the switch Veidt becomes terrified, and almost immediately begins hallucinating that he sees the face of the murderer and imagines that the hands are still under his control. Alexandra Sorina, as Veidt’s wife, does an amazing job here, wide-eyed with fear and tortured throughout the film. While her acting style is certainly a product of its time--and I’m not a big fan of histrionic acting in silent films--it is perfect for this picture and is one of the great artistic qualities of the film. Veidt, on the other hand, is so tortured as to border on overacting. His performance makes Colin Clive’s in the 1935 remake seem positively restrained. Still, it is an amazing performance, a demonstration of silent film acting that attempts to wring every bit of emotion from the audience.

Likewise, the direction by Wiene has its ups and downs. There are some incredible shots, like the living room where the piano sits with an overhead spotlight on it casting everything else into darkness. And the nighttime scenes that open the film at the site of the railway accident are stunning. The camera following the car in the night, with just the headlights illuminating the road ahead is like a realistic version of an iris shot. And the flare of the train headlight as it moves past the screen, whether intended or not, is phenomenal. But his direction of the actors seems glacial, with long stretches of slow moving actors shuffling across the screen like Frankenstein’s monster, or Veidt moving his hands to his face with excruciating slowness. The composition of his scenes, however, is brilliant for the time and is a pleasure to see.

Though touted on DVD sleeves and box sets as an Expressionist horror film, it is neither. It is a suspense film that deals with mental instability and murder. It’s very atmospheric and the reconstruction by Kino International uses the two existing prints to make the most complete version available. What seems most fascinating to me, however, is how the film appears to have influenced Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There is a discussion by the doctor about how the heart and head control the hands, Orlac the Elder seems to be a model for Freder, and Fritz Kortner is certainly the prototype for Rottwang. The film was remade several times, the most famous being Mad Love from 1935, directed by Karl Freund and starring Peter Lorre. The one negative I have about the Kino disc is the film score by Paul Mercer, which I did not like at all. But that aside, The Hands of Orlac is yet another superb example of European silent filmmaking.

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