Like his more famous The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac is ponderous but indelible. Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is a famous pianist whose hands—the tools of his trade and his wife Ivana’s (Alexandra Sorina) favorite part of his body—are mangled in a horrific train wreck. The macabre twist is that the new limbs sewn to Orlac’s stumps previously belonged to a murderer, a revelation that, along with the appearance of a mysterious blackmailer (Fritz Kortner), proceeds to demolish the character’s sanity. “The spirit rules the hand,” the doctor attempts to convince him, but no less than his Cesare, Veidt’s Orlac seems prisoner in a trance-march, and it’s only a matter of time before his hands are drawn to their old owner’s dagger. The film is full of castration imagery, Freudian intimations (including a patriarchal ogre in a twisted castle), and assorted perversities (like the wife’s erotic yearning to be touched), yet next to the relentlessly distorted subjectivity of Caligari, Wiene’s handling here seems almost minimalist, keeping the camera angles mostly balanced as the horrors materialize through stark atmosphere and Veidt’s extraordinary physical expressiveness. Paced like a funeral and saddled with one of the least satisfying endings in German expressionism, Orlac scarcely reaches the baroque complexities of The Man Who Laughs (where it was Veidt’s grin, rather than his mitts, that tortured him). Nevertheless, it lingers as a unique waking nightmare both in the viewer’s mind and in film history: He may have started a long line of unruly-appendage shocks (from the 1935 MGM remake Mad Love to the slapstick splatter of Evil Dead 2), but Wiene’s greatest contribution was imagining, decades before Cronenberg, the ultimate horror of the body turning against itself.
Other than a couple of cracked patches and lines that betray the degraded quality of the original print, Kino's transfer is quite amazing in its sharpness. Paul Mercer's score is serviceable, if unmemorable.
Most interesting among the sparse extras is a brief but detailed featurette essaying the differences between Orlac's domestic and international cuts, with a single change in angle at times altering the entire feel of a shot. Also included is the original trailer for Mad Love with a cackling Peter Lorre, an image gallery, excerpts of the Maurice Renard novel which served as the film's basis, and an informative essay by Veidt biographer John Soister.
Conrad Veidt is the original innocent with dirty hands in this memorable bit of Germanic arcana.