May 6, 1924 - The Hands of Orlac

The Hands of Orlac (German: Orlacs Hände) is a 1924 Austrian silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina and Fritz Kortner. The film was also released as Die Unheimlichen Hände des Doktor Orlac. The film’s plot is based on the book Les Mains d’Orlac (1920) written by Maurice Renard.

Wiene had made his name as a director of Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and in The Hands of Orlac combined expressionist motifs with more naturalistic visuals. The film has been remade three times: as Mad Love (1935) directed by Karl Freund, as The Hands of Orlac (1960), a British/French co-production, and as a low-budget American company as Hands of a Stranger (1962) directed by Newt Arnold. The film Body Parts (1991) also drew extensively on Renard’s story.

Plot

Concert pianist Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) loses his hands in a horrible railway accident. His wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) pleads with a surgeon to try and save Orlac’s hands. The surgeon transplants the hands of a recently executed murderer named Vasseur. When Orlac learns this, horror obsesses him. He is tortured by the presence of a knife he finds at his house, just like that used by Vasseur, and the desire to kill. He believes that along with the hands he has acquired the murderer’s predisposition to violence. He confronts the surgeon, telling him to remove the hands, but the surgeon tries to convince him that a person’s acts are not governed by hands, but by the head and heart.

Orlac’s new hands are unable to play the piano, and in time he and his wife run out of money. Creditors give them one more day to pay their bills. Yvonne goes to Paul’s father for money, but is refused. Orlac himself then goes to see his father, but finds he has been stabbed to death with the same knife like Vasseur’s. He starts to think he himself committed the murder, and goes to a café for a drink. There he meets a man who claims he is Vasseur, who tells Orlac the same surgeon who did the hand transplant also transplanted a new head onto Vasseur’s body. He then tells Orlac he wants money to keep quiet about the murder.

In the meantime, police find Vasseur’s finger prints at the scene of the crime, causing confusion. Paul and Yvonne Orlac decide to go to the police and try to explain about Vasseur’s hands being on Paul’s arms, but that he had no recollection of killing his father. He also tells the police about the man claiming to be the executed murderer, and the blackmail money. It turns out that the man is actually a con man named Nera, well known to police. Orlac’s maid tells the police that Nera was a friend of Vasseur, and that he had made a set of rubber gloves with Vasseur’s fingerprints. The gloves were used during the murder.

Cast

Conrad Veidt as Paul Orlac
Alexandra Sorina as Yvonne Orlac
Fritz Kortner as Nera
Carmen Cartellieri as Regine
Hans Homma as Dr. Serra
Fritz Strassny as Paul’s father
Paul Askonas as Servant