The Hands Of Orlac

Forty years before real-life doctors would even attempt a hands transplant and seventy-five years before the first truly successful operation to do so, The Hands Of Orlac explored what it meant to have another person's body part integrated into your own and assured audiences that who we are doesn't change simply because our body does.

Lisa reviews body horror classic film The Hands Of Orlac
The Hands of Orlac


Synopsis - Spoilers Included

Paul Orlac is returning home from a tour as a celebrated concert pianist when his train collides with another. Paul's wife, who has rushed to the scene, finds Orlac barely alive but  badly injured. He is rushed to a nearby clinic, where his life is saved. 

His hands, the doctor tells his wife, are too badly damaged to be repaired.

Meanwhile, a murderer named Vasseur is scheduled to be executed and his body taken to that  same clinic.  As Orlac's hysterical wife begs the doctor to save Orlac's hands, the body of the executed Vasseur arrives. The surgeon removes the murderer's hands and transplants them onto Orlac.

Even as he lies in his hospital room--and before he is told about the transplant--Orlac begins to see visions of a maniac leering at him, laughing at his hands. After he learns the truth about his new hands, he frets that he will never play piano again. Despite the surgeon's reassurances, Orlac becomes obsessed with the idea that the new hands, which once committed such unthinkable acts, will never truly be his own.

Orlac is sent home to recover from his ordeal. He finds himself unable to bring himself to touch his wife and is no longer able to play his piano. The more he learns of Vasseur's crimes, the more convinced he becomes that he is somehow falling under the influence of the evil hands. In his home Orlac finds a knife that matches the description of the blade the murderer used, further feeding his obsession. He hides the knife in his piano but becomes fixated on it; he carries it throughout the house, stabbing at unseen targets as if compelled by the hands to do so.

Orlac falls into debt and is given only a single day to make good with his creditors. Orlac's wife goes to his father for help but is refused. When Orlac himself goes, he finds his father dead, the now-familiar knife still lodged in the old man's heart.

When police investigate they declare the knife to be the same one Vasseur used in his murders. They also find Vasseur's fingerprints all over the scene.

Orlac retreats to a local cafe to think, increasingly convinced that he might be his father's killer, though he has no memory of the crime. There he is confronted by the man whose face he sees leering at him in his visions. The stranger seems to know all and blackmails Orlac, telling him that the surgeon not only gave Orlac a murderer's hands; the doctor also gave the stranger Vasseur's head. He claims to be the executed Vasseur and shows Orlac his prosthetic arms and a scar around his neck as proof.

Orlac goes to the police and tells them that he has Vasseur's hands but no memory of his father's murder. He also tells them of the extortion attempt. An arrest warrant is written out but Orlac is told to go ahead and gather the money to deliver to the stranger.

Police ultimately recognize the stranger as a man named Nera. He is well known to law enforcement as a talented criminal. Most recently he worked in the hospital where Orlac's surgery was performed. The prosthetic arms are, in  fact, just removable casts, as is the scar around his throat.

Orlac's maid then confesses to also being a blackmail victim of Nera. Before Vasseur's death, she explains, Nera made rubber glove molds of Vasseur's hands and wore them when he murdered Orlac's father. That is how Vasseur's fingerprints wound up at the crime scene. Vasseur, she adds, was completely innocent of the murder for which he was executed.

Realizing the he actually has "clean" hands, Orlac is able to resume a normal life.

Why The Hands Of Orlac Is A Must-See Film

Many things make Orlac a must-see picture but two things in particular stand out to me. First is its historical importance. Orlac is universally credited as the first film to play off the hands-with-their-own-will trope and it exploits that fear of suddenly-foreign body parts brilliantly. At least two direct remakes of Orlac were produced; countless dozens of TV episodes, short stories and comic strips were undoubtedly inspired by this film.

The other thing that makes Orlac a must see is that it's a wonderful first film for anyone looking to get into silent films. Orlac avoids, or at least minimizes, many of the pitfalls that can make earlier films hard to watch. It does this by getting right into its storyline, telling a believable (and surprisingly complex) story with fully developed characters and making wonderful use of music to further convey mood. When the mid-film sag does show up, you're already so invested you hardly care.

Lisa's Favorite Scene

Orlac is beautifully acted by everyone but it is, of course, Conrad Veidt as the tortured pianist who rules this roost. About midway through, there is a wonderful scene in which he is being seduced by his maid--the first time in weeks he has allowed himself to touch another human being. Veidt does an amazing job and only rarely did I find myself wanting to say to the screen, "Oh, just get on with it already."

Closing Thoughts On The Hands Of Orlac

Of the five silent films I reviewed for this series Orlac is easily my favorite. I also suspect it will be among the easiest for someone new to silent films to get into. The story is surprisingly complex, the secondary characters are completely believable and no character is forced to endure momentary episodes of stupidity to make things easier on the villain.

Orlac is a film that will respect your intelligence and tell you a beautiful story about the human condition all at the same time. Buy it here.

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