A pianist’s hands are crushed in an accident but worry not, the fresh corpse of a murderer is on hand to donate brand new ones. I mean, it’s not like stitching on a murderer’s hands will make someone commit murder, right? Right?
I will also be covering the 1935 sound remake Mad Love. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Modern horror isn’t really my thing but I do love a good dose of the classic stuff. More specifically, the sort of macabre, gruesome fare that silent and classic film had in abundance. Short on actual blood, long on atmosphere. The Hands of Orlac (Orlacs Hände) isn’t quite as famous as Nosferatu or The Phantom of the Opera but it does have an impressive pedigree. It reunited director Robert Wiene with star Conrad Veidt—the pair had made film history with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920—and uses the ever-popular Evil Hand horror trope.
For those of you unfamiliar, the idea is that a character is given a new hand, either a transplant of organic matter or a mechanical one, and it has a mind of its own. A twisted little mind. Or… does it? Da da DUM! Or perhaps the mere thought of someone else’s hands drives the recipient to theft or murder. We’ll go deeper into the history of this long-lived trope but first, an examination of the main attraction.
The film gets right down to business, opening with Yvonne Orlac (Alexandra Sorina) receiving a letter from her husband, a world famous pianist. The letter goes on about his desire to hold his wife with his hands, feel her with his hands, has he mentioned that he is really into hands? Basically, this is the equivalent of a cop announcing his retirement or a soldier saying that he just ordered a Sears bungalow for himself and his best girl back in Iowa, Mildred Jean, to live in after the war. Those hands are doomed.
Sure enough, Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is horrifically injured in a train crash. His head is injured but he is likely to recover. His hands, however, have been crushed beyond recovery and must be amputated. Yvonne pleads with Dr. Serral (Hans Homma) to save the hands of her husband since as a musician, his hands are his life.
As it happens, Serral is about to receive the body of a recently-guillotined murderer named Vasseur. Vasseur knifed his victim with a distinct dagger, one with an X carved into the handle. Just throwing out that bit of completely unrelated information that will not enter the story at all. (Sips tea.)
Orlac awakens from surgery and sees a strange man (Fritz Kortner) staring at him through the hospital window. Now Fritz Kortner suddenly appearing in the window would be enough to freak anyone out but Orlac is more sensitive than most and begins to have nightmares. Then he receives an anonymous note informing him of the origin of his new hands.
Orlac refuses to touch his wife with the hands of a killer. He cannot play. His handwriting is different. With no income, the couple begins to slide into poverty and creditors are calling in their notes. The mysterious Fritz Kortner has some kind of hold over the Orlacs’ maid, Regine (Carmen Cartellieri), and she is helping to convince her employer that his hands are murderous. Vasseur’s signature dagger appears in the Orlac home and, much to his horror, Orlac seems a little too excited to be wielding it.
With the money situation dire, Yvonne makes to decision to go to her husband’s rich father (Fritz Strassny) and ask for help. The senior Orlac lives in isolation in a creepy manor and he is a real charmer. He is positively gleeful at the thought of his son’s destitution and vows to not lend a single cent to the couple.
And so the younger Orlac’s finances continue to erode until he finally swallows his pride and goes to his father himself. The house is empty, the servant is out and his father is dead. Stabbed with a very distinct dagger and with Orlac’s new fingerprints all over the place…
(I’m going to be talking about the grand denouement of this chiller and it’s remake, so consider yourself well and truly spoiler warned.)
The Fritz Kortner character turns out to be Nera, the assistant of Dr. Serral. He poses as Vasseur, claiming that his head was reattached and tries to blackmail Orlac by threatening to expose him as the new owner of his hands. Actually, Nera murdered Orlac’s father using rubber gloves with Vasseur’s fingerprints. And why does he have rubber gloves with Vasseur’s fingerprints? Because he murdered Vasseur’s other victim too; an innocent man was executed.
Fortunately, Orlac’s maid throws off his mind control and the police actually manage to get it right this time and Nera is arrested. Realizing that his hands are not the hands of a killer, Orlac is free to embrace his wife.
Now, I’m afraid I have to be a bit of a heretic here but… Paul Orlac is not very interesting. His wife is interesting. His father is interesting. His would-be blackmailer is interesting. Conrad Veidt is interesting but the character he plays just isn’t.
It would have been different if the film had given a bit more time to the father-son relationship (it’s barely a blip) or had shown Orlac before the accident but we basically just know him as a nervous man being driven mad by a conspiracy. But since we know it is a conspiracy from almost the start, there is very little viewer investment in the question of whether or not the hands are controlling Orlac or if he is descending into severe mental illness. And since we are shown very little of Nera, we are not given enough insight into the conspiracy while it is playing out to appreciate its devilish details.
Let’s face it, Nera’s plot to blackmail Orlac is an extremely bizarre and roundabout way to come into some cash, especially since the two men seem to have zero personal connection. I realize that cruel blackmail schemes against strangers happen all the time in the real world but in films, we need something a bit more concrete to be invested in the story. Nera’s nefarious scheme also relies on a heck of a lot of coincidences. It just so happens that a patient in need of hands shows up just in time to receive the body of the man Nera framed? And Nera has a hold over the patient’s maid? And the patient has a tense relationship with his rich father? I’m all for bonkers plotting but this all seems a bit off.
Nera’s all-seeing, all-knowing schemes and abilities make him the cousin of French criminal mastermind Fantômas but both the novels and serial knew that the main attraction was said criminal mastermind. Focusing on Orlac just isn’t as much fun.
We’re in the realm of horror and symbolism, I know, but the film lacks the necessary venomous punch to become a true classic. The introduction of Orlac’s father and his incredibly creepy grudge against his son showed promise but the murder immediately following the character’s intro snuffed out that particular thread.
While it is never openly stated in the film, it is implied that Orlac’s vulnerability to Nera’s scheme could be the result of post-traumatic stress, a condition that the post-World War One world was all too familiar with under the name shell shock. Certainly, the later years of the Expressionist art movement incorporated the horrors of the war into powerful works of art. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s symbolism has been linked to the War as well, though there is still much debate about just what that film meant. In any case, it is certain that both Veidt and Wiene would have been aware of shell shock and how Orlac’s trauma could be seen as a stand-in for the war.
Indeed, while crude replacement limbs had existed for centuries and the transfusion of blood was becoming standard medicine, the First World War brought about an unprecedented need for both protheses and blood. The full transplant of hands is still not possible, of course, but it is easy to see how the story of The Hands of Orlac was influenced by these facts.
Les Mains d’Orlac, the novel upon which The Hands of Orlac was based, was published by Maurice Renard in 1920 but it was not the first Evil Hand story. In 1915, the Brothers Grimm published a macabre tale entitled The Three Army Surgeons. Itself almost certainly a product of the traumas of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is about three surgeons who remove body parts and replace them to show off their skills. Unfortunately, there is a mix-up and instead of their own parts, they are given the stomach of a pig, the eyes of a cat and the hands of a thief. Each surgeon manifests the behavior of the previous owner of these body parts.
Technology gone wrong is also incorporated into The Thieving Hand (1908), a comedy film about a panhandler who is given a kleptomaniac prosthetic hand. The poor man soon finds himself in jail thanks to the hand’s predilections. While The Hands of Orlac is not strictly the first Evil Hand film, it does seem to be the earliest one to use the trope for chills rather than giggles. (Naturally, I would love to hear about any earlier instances that you might find.)
The plot device has remained with us, either has a direct remake of The Hands of Orlac (there was one in 1935 and another in 1960 with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee) or as an independent story. Hand/arm transplants and prosthetics gone wrong, hands under the control of evil or even hands that are sentient and evil themselves… they’re everywhere. The device was played for laughs in Doctor Strangelove and for darker purposes in thrillers, horror films and horror-comedies like Idle Hands (1999), Body Parts (1991), The Hand (1981) and The Hands of a Stranger (1962). This is hardly an exhaustive list but I hope it illustrates the ongoing popularity of the trope. There is something irresistible about the notion of “I have found the killer and it is me.”
Whether or not the Evil Hand is real or merely a figment of the protagonist’s imagination depends on the film. In The Hands of Orlac, it is the latter with Orlac returning to sanity when he finds out about Nera’s plan and the fact that Vasseur himself had been framed as a murderer.
I have mixed feelings about the performances in this picture, particularly Veidt’s. When judging the acting in silent films, one must be careful to take into account the context and taste of the time. “Overacting” is a charge often leveled at silent films but audiences preferred a certain amount of drama with variations in taste depending on time period, culture, etc. For example, earlier films used fewer closeups and so performers had to convey emotions using their entire bodies, which led to more emphatic acting. (Think Florence Lawrence in The Country Doctor.)
However, even in earlier films, there were hams in the bunch. The Copper Beeches, for example, is outrageously overacted in comparison to other films of the time and is quite hilarious as a result.
Some countries liked more drama than others and German audiences tended to prefer performers who really gave it their all. One of their biggest stars was Emil “Too Much is Never Enough” Jannings, for heaven’s sake! I always try to do apples to apples comparisons when judging performances in silent films. It wouldn’t be fair to compare, say, the more subtle performances of Richard Barthelmess with the dramatic acting of Gustav Fröhlich. Different market, different style. I have a lot of patience and tolerance for the German pace and the German acting style. (Or Austrian, in this case.)
That being said, much as I love Conrad Veidt, his performance does suffer from a bit of muchness. Some scenes— visiting his father’s house, absorbing the enormity of Vasseur’s crimes— are pitch perfect but others are just masses of flailing. They could see him in the cheap seats. Heck, they could see him from orbit. Fritz Kortner fares better because his character is more colorful and the villain always has a bit more leeway in this regard.
And yet, is it really that much more stylized than Veidt’s turn as Cesare in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari? Not really but this is where we need to talk about how the various components of a film support one another and create a cohesive whole.
Since I haven’t put forth nearly enough controversial opinions, let’s talk about Expressionism. As described by the Museum of Modern Art, “the Expressionists sought to depict the world as it felt rather than how it looked, and, by doing so, to reinvigorate art with authenticity and expressive force.” The art movement inspired films, certainly, but I do think the term is overused when examining Weimar cinema. There are certainly elements of The Hands of Orlac that can be considered Expressionist. (News of the accident appearing over the characters reacting, Orlac’s dream sequence, the row of identical moneylenders, for example.) But is the film itself Expressionist?
I personally do not think so. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Genuine (both directed by Weine) are two of the only proper examples of all-Expressionist films, in my opinion, and I really wish people would stop calling every German drama and genre film Expressionist. Do they, like The Hands of Orlac, have Expressionist or Expressionist-inspired elements? Often, yes, they do. But Expressionism is quite specific and I like to keep it that way. “Germans hamming it up and also horror or robots” does not Expressionism make.
The set design in The Hands of Orlac is strangely spare and uninteresting. (And that’s factoring in the relatively murky condition of the surviving 35mm print.) It’s as if the prop master didn’t show up for work every day and everyone tried to carry on without him. The train crash sequence, all metal wreckage and glowing lights, is both dynamic and darkly beautiful. The lonely mansion of Orlac’s father is a moody Dracula’s castle with medieval furnishings and the tavern where Orlac meets Nera is as seedy as one could hope for but seedy and/or gothic does not equal Expressionism. And then everything else is just… a room. Another room. Perhaps this sparseness was meant to symbolize Orlac’s isolation or his status as a newly-successful musician but it doesn’t really work. It just looks like the Orlacs take Marie Kondo way too seriously.
Going back to the lack of Expressionism, every visual element of the story should physically manifest the inner turmoil of the characters. This would have also served to balance out the rather dramatic acting style employed by the cast. In spare, boring sets, the broad gestures seem even larger but a weirder, wilder world would have created an appropriate equilibrium.
Despite the lack of visual oomph, there are several parallels between The Hands of Orlac and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that go beyond visual echoes. Both films feature Veidt being controlled body and soul by a sinister puppet master, though the control is more illusionary than it seems at first. There is even a somnambulist sequence in which Orlac allows his hands to take over and Veidt’s body language is Cesare all the way.
German reviews were universally positive with Veidt’s performance particularly singled out. American reviews, when the film was finally imported, were less enthusiastic. Variety liked Veidt but felt the story was silly and Mordaunt Hall thought the picture was generally overacted. And here I am agreeing with Mordaunt Hall, which is surely the most terrifying part of this review.
Incidentally, the version of the film most readily available in North America is the 1990s restoration released on DVD by Kino. There is also an Austrian restoration that was released in 2013. There are minor differences in the way the film is cut and small snippets of scenes but none of these changes make much of a difference to the story. (You can watch the 2013 cut here.)
The Hands of Orlac has a creepy premise, some excellent scenes and moments of genuine macabre brilliance but it is also meandering even by European film standards and the banal set design does not match the dramatic acting style. It’s worth seeing for fans of classic horror and Conrad Veidt but it’s just lacking that special something.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Kino. The DVD includes comparisons of the surviving prints of the film used for the release, which is quite valuable if you really want to dig into the minutiae of the different versions. (Some of the shots are taken from two slightly different angles, cameras cranking side-by-side.)
We’ve already established that studios and audiences cannot get enough of the Evil Hand trope so it was almost inevitable that The Hands of Orlac would be remade in the sound era. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting MGM to pick up the baton but then again, this is the studio where Lon Chaney and Tod Browning really made their mark with gruesome melodramas.
The remake, called Mad Love this time, is staffed by veterans of Universal’s golden age of horror. Ex-Dr. Frankenstein Colin Clive plays Orlac; John L. Balderston, who worked on the screenplays of all of Universal’s major classics from Dracula to Bride of Frankenstein, contributed to the screenplay; Karl Freund, pioneering cinematographer and director of the original Mummy, helmed the production. However, the main attraction for most viewers is Peter Lorre in his American film debut as the mad doctor to end all mad doctors.
Lorre, like his Orlac forebears Robert Wiene and Fritz Kortner, was obliged to flee Germany when the Nazi regime came to power. Film felt the Nazi crackdown early on and Jewish talents like Lorre, Wiene and Kortner were targeted for dismissal with far worse threatened. Fellow Orlac veteran Conrad Veidt was not Jewish but left Germany around the same time in protest. (Austrian Jewish actor Fritz Strassny, who had played Orlac’s father in the silent film, is reported to have been murdered in the Holocaust.)
Mad Love follows the plot of The Hands of Orlac fairly closely and so I will just discuss the areas in which it improves on the material. Yes, improves because I do believe that Mad Love’s screenplay is superior to The Hands of Orlac.
I should note that I was unable to obtain a copy of the original novel prior to this review so, much to my chagrin, I must discuss the adaptation without consulting the written version. According to excerpts I had read, The Hands of Orlac was a loose adaptation of the novel and trimmed quite a bit of fat, so Mad Love can be seen as a direct remake and not merely a new adaptation of the novel. Interestingly, Orlac was Stephen in the book and his wife was named Rosine, so Mad Love retained the wife’s name from The Hands of Orlac but gave Orlac his given name from Les Mains d’Orlac.
The characters of Nera and Dr. Serral are combined into Dr. Gogol (Lorre), a kindly and brilliant surgeon who cures children and loves his horror plays. I mean, really, really loves his horror plays. Specifically, he loves the lurid horror theater where Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) performs. Every night, he watches her being tortured on the stage and when the show ends, he purchases the wax likeness used to publicize the show.
Yvonne is quitting showbiz to spend more time with her husband, pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive). Gogol is heartbroken to find his love already married but at least he can buy underwear for the wax figure…
Like most women, Yvonne is alert enough to get all the creepy vibes from Gogol and does not particularly want to see him again but the train accident and Stephen’s injured hands change all that. She begs Dr. Gogol to save his hands. Fortunately, Gogol has the body of Rollo (Edward Brophy), a carnival knife thrower whose knives did not end up in the right place and who was guillotined the same day. Brophy seems to be enjoying himself as a breezy killer and friend to all but it is a bit of a shock when he gets the chop.
Anyway, Rollo’s hands end up on Stephen and all is well until he realizes that he cannot play the piano anymore but he throws knives, pens and other small objects with alarming accuracy. Stephen begins to suspect that there is something up with his hands and Gogol tries to calm him at first. But then he realizes that if he can drive the nervous Stephen over the edge, Yvonne will be single once more…
I gotta say, I knew Mad Love’s not-too-great reputation going into this but I found myself pleasantly surprised. Oh sure, it’s all a lot of Grand Guignol tenpenny blood stuff but I’m pretty cool with that. Lorre is fabulous, of course, especially when he disguises himself as Rollo and tries to pound the final nail into Stephen’s sanity. However, the entire cast is game for the madness and Freund’s direction has a suitably Teutonic flavor.
Mad Love solves the problem of a boring Orlac by focusing instead on Yvonne and Dr. Gogol, easily the two most interesting characters in the story. Colin Clive is called upon to have a breakdown for most of his screentime but it isn’t unbalanced or distracting because we are watching Gogol’s machinations and Yvonne’s attempts to save him.
Interestingly, Mad Love focuses on class and station considerably more than The Hands of Orlac. We learn the source of Stephen’s estrangement from his father is due to his leaving the family business for music. Dr. Gogol rants that he worked his way up from peasant to renowned doctor. Yvonne’s employment in a sleazy little horror theater indicates that her roots are hardly aristocratic. And so we have three working class people trying to navigate a new social landscape with varying degrees of success. Both Gogol and Stephen arrived because of talent but have scars due to their struggles, Yvonne married her way in and is the most balanced of the lot.
Also, I would very much like to know how Freund and company snuck all this content through with the Code fully in effect. We have a torture scene (a staged torture scene but nonetheless), a violent family row, Gogol buying negligees for his wax figure and the heroine’s father-in-law suggesting that she take up prostitution. Yikes! Apparently, the Hayes office was most worried about the train wreck being too violent. Figures. (We’re not dealing with rocket surgeons.)
The film also features a decent stable of character actors. Brophy is well-cast as the charming killer and it’s nice to see Keye Luke on hand as Dr. Wong, Gogol’s collegue, who is neither stereotyped nor a henchman. He’s just a darn fine surgeon. Sara Haden, daughter of silent era beauty Charlotte Walker, plays Yvonne’s understanding maid. Ted Healy’s American reporter character feels a bit tacked on but everyone else fits in nicely.
It’s all terribly over the top, acting and all, but it has a kind of self-aware “AREN’T WE GRUESOME???” feel to it that I enjoy. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it just wants to chill a few spines and make us go “eewww!” I can respect that.
As stated before, Mad Love has been panned for decades by critics who, I assume, also hate ice cream and rainbows. And there was a big mid-century battle about whether or not Mad Love influence Citizen Kane and, to be frank, the whole thing makes my eyes glaze over and I would rather talk about other things. Literally any other thing. Long story short, this picture is the very model of a cult classic and it is absolutely grand if you’re in the right mood for gruesome. It certainly ages better than some Tod Browning pictures I could mention. (Sips more tea.)
Let’s break this sucker down and see which version of the Orlac story will be the victor:
Orlac: Colin Clive has less screen time as Orlac (not necessarily a minus) but he lacks the creepy quality that Conrad Veidt wore like a well-tailored suit. The Silent.
Yvonne Orlac: Alexandra Sorina swoons a lot but she does take charge of the situation near the end. Frances Drake has more to do in the story but is forced into a damsel condition during the grand finale. Still, she is the more interesting character and the protagonist. The Talkie.
Mr. Hands: Fritz Kortner is creepy and does his best but his motives are basically “Because I’m a villain, it’s pure and simple.” Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol is given a disturbing fixation with Yvonne and his obsession makes him a generally more effective villain. The Talkie.
Direction: While there are some glorious moments in the 1924 film, Karl Freund brings the right mood to the party despite a reportedly tortured shoot. The Talkie.
And the winner is…
Yes, to the shock of everyone, I chose an MGM sound film over a Conrad Veidt silent. Between this and agreeing with Mordaunt Hall, I start to wonder if I had a hand transplant while I wasn’t looking but there it is.
Mad Love is a perfectly twisted little gem that somehow managed to be made in 1935 Hollywood with all the priggish oversight that entailed. Peter Lorre is absolutely the main attraction but if you turn off your brain and enjoy the lurid aspects, I think you will find much to like all around. This very much reminds me of the warped stuff Lon Chaney was churning out for MGM prior to his death.
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