The celebrated concert pianist Paul Orlac is returning home after the final night of his tour to his beloved wife Yvonne and their sinister apartment of shadows and uncomfortable furniture when tragedy strikes, a collision between his train and another in the early hours of the morning; with men rushing to the scene bearing stretchers for the wounded, Frau Orlac hunts for her husband in the wreckage.
Finding him seriously injured but alive, Herr Orlac is given into the care of Doctor Serra who performs an experimental surgery; unable to save the hands of Orlac, he instead transplants the hands of another recently deceased man onto his bloody stumps, hoping to restore the limbs which would otherwise have been lost.
The operation is an apparent success, but Orlac remains haunted by nightmarish images looming over the foot of his bed, by urges he cannot explain; is he traumatised by the experience or is it the hands themselves which are pushing him towards violence? A confrontation with Doctor Serra confirms what Orlac suspected and dreaded, that the hands of Orlac once belonged to the executed murderer Vasseur whose spirit still apparently controls them.
A writer of early science fiction and fantasy well known in his native France, Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac was first published in serial form in the summer of 1920 and has since been adapted many times, the first version being 1924’s Orlac’s Hände (The Hands of Orlac), now released on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range restored from the original film elements held by the Film Archiv Austria.
Written by Ludwig Nertz and reuniting director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt who had collaborated four years earlier on the classic of German expressionist cinema Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, The Hands of Orlac is perhaps less visually striking and overtly stylised but carries the same hallmarks of oppressive architecture and barely lit halls and is more coherent, drawing on the same well of dreams but never allowing them to overwhelm the story.
The tortured Orlac playing to Viedt’s established strengths as an actor, a walking corpse whose hands are alien to him, unable to touch or bear to be touched, he is matched by Alexandra Sorina as the wild-eyed Yvonne, while Fritz Kortner brings menace as the mysterious Nera, taking advantage of Orlac’s situation and precarious mental state to blackmail him.
Presented in two versions, one ninety-three minutes with a soundtrack of crescendos and furious arpeggios by Johannes Kalitzke accentuating the burgeoning madness, the other is one hundred and ten minutes with a score by Paul Mercer, the significant differences and the process of combining them for the restoration explored by Bret Wood in a supporting feature.
A film which sits comfortably alongside the “mad scientist” works of Boris Karloff, particularly Before I Hang, also recently released by Eureka, The Hands of Orlac carries a commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, familiar with the novel and its many interpretations, and a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson which discusses its place in cinema and history, arising from the ashes of the Great War and echoing forward into manifestations as diverse as Doctor Strangelove and Evil Dead II.