B&W, 1924, 94 mins. 28 secs.
Directed by Robert Weine
Starring Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas, Carmen Cartellieri, Hans Homma
Eureka (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Absolut Medien (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Kino Lorber (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
The very long shadow cast by the legendary German Expressionist horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would have been enough to solidify anyone's place in film history, but its director Robert Weine and star Conrad Veidt had another genre trick still left up their sleeves five years later. Based on the episodic 1920 novel Les Mains d'Orlac by Maurice Renard (originally run as a serial) and based on a real-life surgeon, Orlacs Hände, or The Hands of Orlac, hones in on the most striking concept in the book and sets the stage for decades of "body horror" cinema about protagonists whose own physical forms turn against them in terrifying ways. The film (rather than the novel) was later revisited in Hollywood for one of the finest horror films of the 1930s, Mad Love, with later versions including 1960's The Hands of Orlac with Christopher Lee and 1962's Hands of a Stranger. The central idea has also been tweaked many times with variations like Body Parts, The Beast with Five Fingers, The Hand, The Eye, Idle Hands, and even Evil Dead II, to name just a few. However, if you want to see where it all started with an indisputable masterpiece of silent horror, this is the one to see.
Talented pianist Paul Orlac (Veidt) finds his concert career curtailed thanks to a violent train crash that severs both of his hands. His wife, Yvonne (Sorina), implores the surgeon (Homma) to "Save his hands! His hands mean more to him than his life," so Orlac becomes the recipient of an experimental procedure grafting on a new set of hands. Unfortunately Orlac soon finds out that his hands belonged to an executed murderer named Vasseur, and finding his piano-playing abilities now compromised, he begins to fear that the deceased's homicidal impulses have been passed on to him as well.
In keeping with a large portion of genre fare around this time, The Hands of Orlac tries to ground everything in the final stretch with a rational explanation that actually leaves a lot of supernatural questions still wide open, a la London After Midnight / Mark of the Vampire. As such it's a fascinating horror/mystery hybrid with some startling moments of nightmarish surrealism, such as the appearance of the grinning Vasseur (Kortner) - or is it? - who has a wild tale about the fate of the rest of his body. Veidt is great as always, delivering a powerful physical performance in which his dramatic hand gestures are not only justified but absolutely essential, while Weine keeps things more naturalistic here than his more famous masterpiece but still betraying the undeniable visual stylist behind them both.
Widely mentioned in horror movie books but rather hard to see until the public domain video boom in the 1980s, The Hands of Orlac was still hard to enjoy thanks to its rough-looking presentations until an authorized 2008 DVD from Kino Lorber (then under its Kino International banner); now discontinued, that release featured a restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation with additional material from the Raymond Rohauer Collection, plus a featurette on the two versions of the film shot simultaneously with different cameras. (More on that below.) A more extensive HD restoration debuted on German Blu-ray in 2019 (not English friendly), so the way to go now is really the 2021 U.K. Blu-ray from Eureka's Masters of Cinema line, available in the U.S. from Foreign Exchange Blu-ray Imports. The initial pressing limited to 2,000 units features a slipcase and comes with a booklet featuring fine new essays by Philip Kemp and Tim Lucas about Weine's often marginalized career, Renard's contributions to literary medical horror, and the various later versions seen on film. The main version of the film is a beautiful HD restoration from the Film Archiv Austria, with excellent detail, surprisingly good depth, and only minimal damage on display; the original German intertitles are retained with optional English subtitles, with an LPCM 2.0 score by Johannes Kalitzke. The film also comes with a new audio commentary by authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, who certainly know their stuff here with a packed, thorough dissection of the source novel, the variations in different adaptations, the horror concepts this shares with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and much more. "Extremities" (26m23s) is a new video essay by filmmakers David Cairns and Fiona Watson about the Renard, the rise of German Expressionism, and the visual techniques used to convey subtext to the story that may not have been immediately obvious to viewers (or readers of the book), as well as the unique approach of acting at the time and the integration of occult elements. Also included is an alternate SD presentation of the film (112m46s) featuring the earlier F.W. Murnau Foundation restoration with those copious alternate takes, running slower and with longer intertitles (plus a different score by Paul Mercer). Obviously this one doesn't look as good as the main version, but it's fascinating to see the differences. Speaking of which, the comparison featurette (13m49s) from the Kino DVD is retained here, highlighting some of the differences both minor and very evident between the two versions.
Reviewed on June 30, 2021