The Hands of Orlac

The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924)

In addition to being almost twice as long as the other silent films watched so far, Orlac offers up other innovations as well. For one, the scene at the beginning, as Yvonne and her driver race to the scene of the train accident, involves a moving camera . Perhaps I’m overlooking something, but it seems that this is new? In addition, I enjoyed the techniques used as Paul reads the details of Vasseur’s murders in the newspaper and begins to imagine them for himself: first, blurring the scene to indicate a movement away from reality, and the images of Vasseur’s knife and hands seemingly shot through glass or something to give the visuals a slight lack of clarity and a feeling of memory. The scene with the creditors was also a favorite, the mustachioed bottom halves of their faces shaking refusal in unison. I noticed, too, more medium shots in this film, with the actors becoming quite small and isolated in the looming rooms.

The central conflict in Orlac resembles that of Jekyll & Hyde: can the heart/will/soul/brain overcome the wretched body/desires/instincts/animalistic tendencies of man? In Jekyll & Hyde (as we discussed), the theme was somewhat confused by the contradiction between the opening claim that man will be what he wants to be and the suggestion that Jekyll is a victim, corrupted by the aristocracy and altered by his potion. Orlac eliminates this contradiction: Paul begins as a civilized and kind man, and even merging his body with that of a criminal does not alter his essence. The doctor’s words are proven true: “[t]he spirit rules the hand. Nature and a strong will can overcome anything.” Jekyll fails where Paul succeeds.

It might seem unfair to compare Jekyll and Paul, perhaps. After all, Jekyll’s drug unleashes the repressed evil that already exists within him whereas Paul’s evil is from without and quite literally sutured to him. However, the slight tangential turn of the plot to focus on Paul’s father, who hates without reason or mercy, make Jekyll and Paul more alike than they first may seem: Paul does perhaps have a genetic predisposition to evil if he takes after his father even a bit. I would argue that he is not so different from Jekyll after all but merely demonstrates superior resistance to the evil that momentarily overcomes him when hands, genes, and upbringing temporarily join forces to try to turn him to the dark side.

What’s all this about hands, by the way? We’ve seen deformed hands in the last three films. The hands, it seems, represent the body potential evil desires and animalistic urges. Why? I wonder if the connotations of hands, especially male hands, changed during this time. If most men moved from manual labor to white-collar jobs, then the quality and uses of their hands would have altered as well. All the men in their proper form use their hands for more “civilized” matters than labor: Jekyll heals with his hands, Hutter writes with his hands, and Paul makes music. The message I get is that man’s hands should be white-collar; when hands get mangled and distorted–when they are, in other words, working-class hands–the men who brandish them become as animalistic as their claw-like appendages.

What pleased me most about Orlac, however, was the frank display of sexual longing that Yvonne expresses for her husband. She cannot wait for him to arrive, and her excessive clutching and smelling of the flowers she is arranging suggests that what she is yearning for is the tactile, sensory and sensual experience that he provides her. In addition, their sincere passion for each other allows for increased equality between the two. The really surprising plot turn in Orlac is not that Vasseur is not Vasseur and that Paul’s hands have not murdered but rather that Paul comes clean with his wife and actually listens to her when she tells him to just tell the authorities what’s going on instead of dealing with it himself. I mean, when does THAT ever happen in a film?

Interesting in itself that there is such a plot twist. But we saw this in Caligari, so perhaps it is just one of Wiene’s artistic quirks. Maybe he was the Shyamalan of his day.

2 thoughts on “The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924)

  1. What a well-wrought review. The moving camera is new. Early films didn’t use it widely because, apart from setting up the shot beforehand in great detail, a moving camera often necessitated at least one other camera as well. D.W. Griffith started that trend and effectively became the first “director” as we think of the term today. Before him, the director was essentially a camera man. And the medium shots were likely an influence of non-Hollywood films (duh Brad, German film…). The Russians, Germans, and French started to take wider shots to showcase the elaborate scenery. In Orlac, however, the shots only reveal “looming” rooms. To me this effect was similar to Caligari–the sets made me focus on the psychological aspect of the characters.

    And I’m very proud of the mature and reasonable angle you took on the male hands. I would have just gone for the obvious sexual angle…

    Agreed on Yvonne’s sexuality, especially her eyes. God, those were bright and intense.

    For my own little points, I wanted to say wow to that opening train sequence. That really must have been a high budget undertaking, and the effect of all the smoke was ethereally perfect. Conrad Veidt’s performance as Paul was so compulsively watchable. He nailed neurotic physicality. Even if his slow movements probably added 15 minutes to the run time, his acting was mesmerizing and well worth the time. Looking him up, I was wowed to find out that he also played Cesare in Caligari.

    And, since Paul is a pianist, I was really obsessed with the idea of muscle memory. I knew instantly that no matter whose hands he had sutured on, Paul wouldn’t be able to play the piano. His hands had been too well trained. The brain can hardly reprogram the hands based on piano playing memories alone. So I was addicted to the thought of a killer’s hands having muscle memory for mayhem, but the twist threw that on the cutting room floor. Still, it was a fascinating picture and I’m glad you turned me on to it, Karen. Unlike the others, I’d never heard of this one before so I had no expectations.

    PS – I’m about to shamelessly plug my new blog. I’m doing it mainly because I Karen told me to start a blog so I’m inflicting its URL on her webpage like an ugly wound.

    1. I’m assuming the world got very busy. It’s too bad, because this was a great film worthy of discussion. Oh well, I’m excited for the comic Cat and the Canary.

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