The Hands of Orlac (1924) The Masters of Cinema Release
Updated: May 25, 2021
South West Silents' very own Mark Fuller explores Euerka's The Masters of Cinema Series new Blu-ray release of The Hands of Orloc (1924) plus a chance to win a copy!
Another much-anticipated release from Eureka Entertainment for their Masters of Cinema series is also a personally welcome one for me. It is another title I first encountered as a still image nearly fifty years ago and yet, another film I had been waiting to see for years. It has not been revived very often over the years and on those very rare occasions that it has been, for various reasons, I have missed out.
The Hands of Orlac (Orlac's Hände in the original German) is the first of many film adaptations of the 1920 novel Les Mains d'Orlac by French writer Maurice Renard and it inspired a whole genre of 'Body Horror' films that continues to this day. Some direct remakes like Mad Love (1935) with Peter Lorre, the 1960 Christopher Lee film with the original title intact, a gender-swapped Les Mains De Roxana (2012) with Sylvie Testud and some others 'Inspired By' The Beast With Five Fingers (1946), Hands of A Stranger (1962) and Body Parts (1991). So is this, the original, the best?
Although most of the cast and crew are German and/or associated with the German film industry, this is an Austrian film (filmed in Vienna) with the shadow of Expressionist filmmaking looming over from their German neighbours. The German director Robert Wiene had already become internationally known for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Austrian cinematographer Günther Krampf had shot Nosferatu (1922). Conrad Veidt, playing the pianist Paul Orlac maimed in a railway accident but given new hands in a pioneering experiment, is of course associated by most of us with Expressionist films. Caligari of course and Waxworks (1924) would be his next film after this. There are a couple of sequences that call back to Caligari; his coming round from the operation, the first time we see Orlac's face, is very like the awakening of Cesare and the last sequence, where Orlac carries his wife after she has collapsed, is very much like the image of Cesare carrying his victim over the rooftops.
You won't find the expressionist sets of those films in The Hands of Orlac though; that style had already been dialled back. Here the set design is naturalistic, if strangely proportioned. The expressionism is confined to the acting, heightened beyond naturalism, the panic, fear and madness of the protagonists conveyed by their stiffness of movement and artificiality of expression. The acting here is almost that of a modernist ballet. Visually, there are camera devices and effects employed as madness descends on the characters. But the most impressive sequence is the aftermath of the rail crash found early on in the film. Filmed at night, and naturalistically, the effect is expressionistic. The crazy angles are supplied by the twisted wreckage rather than the camera. The found lighting of searchlights and flares by turns illuminating the steam, rain or flaring into the camera are blinding us viewers. Elsewhere, the naturalistic sets are lit in such a way that the shadows are full of menace and foreboding. Brilliant!
Veidt is just astonishing here. His ability to somehow transform his body into a Vesalius engraving, all engorged veins, muscle and ligaments is in every sense, uncanny. He moves likes a dancer across the wide interior expanses of his mansion with total physical control. Evenly matched by Austrian actor Fritz Kortner as Veidt's tormentor, who is just as expressive and yet, he has a different type of physicality. If Veidt is a dancer, Kortner is a malevolent toad. Alexandra Sorina, as Mrs Orlac, and Carmen Cartellieri as their maid Regine, have the thankless tasks of inhabiting their world and trying not to be swamped by the star power flying about. Not surprisingly, they fail to make a big impression... neither do the rest of the supporting cast.
Usually the releases list the print sources used for the restorations presented. In the minimal packaging I received, there wasn't. The main feature is a new restoration from Film Archiv Austria, replacing the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung restoration released by Kino Lorber in 2008. Both are present here, the latter is in DVD quality with a conventional orchestral score by Paul Mercer is actually 17 minutes longer. But the new restoration does look a great deal better, mostly in camera negative-level visual quality, although, there are small sections where quite a bit of wear is visible in the image and periodic missing frames. Strangely though, the sudden tiny jumps in the action actually add to the uncanniness of what we are seeing. Potentially adding to the print confusion is one of the very interesting extras which has been taken from the earlier Kino release. The extra in question compares the Murnau Stifftung restoration with a 16mm print from the Rohauer Collection which is utterly different; different takes, camera angles and editing. An extra comparing those prints with the newly restored version here would have been most welcome, if only to demonstrate where the 17 minutes difference occurs between the two main prints and how much of it is missing frames and differing frame speeds.
The other extras consist of a fine video essay written by David Cairns and Fiona Watson which gives an interesting contextual and psycho-sexual reading of the film and a debate/commentary audio track for the new restoration featuring Kim Newman and Stephen Jones which covers a great deal of ground; but with opinions which I don't agree with at all times. Veidt and Kortner swapping roles in this? No, just No! However both Newman and Jones do make the point that this film is as much a science fiction film as a horror film and possibly the first horror film NOT set in either a distant past or a foggy Victorian one. It was set in their here and now.
The new score, by Johannes Kalitzke, will almost certainly not be to all tastes. A score with piano, orchestra and the occasional voices but full of atonality and dissonance with added aural distortions and random noises. I honestly thought a musician had knocked over his music stand at one point... but it happened several times more. All told however, it does work to emphasise the horror, paranoia and dread. It's not beautiful but it is clever and after a while, it becomes less obtrusive and feels more in keeping, and enhances the uncanny mood of the film, so do persevere.
There are, disappointingly, some quality control issues with the translation of the German intertitles into English subtitles; one or two infelicities and an outright clanger.
However, this is a fine release of a film that absolutely lives up to my hopes of nearly fifty years gestation. This is the most Conrad Veidt of all Conrad Veidt performances, even more so than his bravura performance in The Man Who Laughs (1928). You just cannot take your eyes off him. Even if Horror (let alone Body Horror) is not your thing, but you trust Conrad Veidt enough to take you somewhere dak and twisted, then this film is a must-see and this release with its alternative versions and scores is a must-have. It's been a long wait to have this film available on home video in the UK... but it has been worth it!
The Hands of Orlac (1924) is title number #249 in Euerka's The Masters of Cinema series and is available via the label's website.
Thanks to The Masters of Cinema's team we have a brand new copy of The Hands of Orlac up for grabs; just send us your answer to the question below via our contact page by mid-night on Monday 21st June 2021 to be in with a chance. Good Luck!
Question: Who directed Conrad Veidt in the 1928 feature The Man Who Laughs?