Ranking: #60/111

Director: Robert Weine (Austria)

Genre: Science Fiction Horror/Romance

This underrated film is just as much a masterpiece of Expressionism as Weine’s better known film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. As a psychological thriller in the genre of science fiction, The Hands of Orlac has a delightfully Kafkaesque atmosphere. It sometimes feels like the viewer has got lost inside a Munch painting.

The thought-provoking screenplay is based on a 1920 novel by French science fiction writer Maurice Renard, Les Mains d’Orlac. Renard’s idea of a virtuoso pianist receiving a double hand transplant, with the donor hands being those of a murderer, forms the basis of the story underpinning the film. The suspense and horror then derive from the transplant patient’s transformation into a killer. In 1981, US director, Oliver Stone filmed his engaging thriller The Hand based on a similar premise.

I love Weine’s powerful and dynamic imagery in The Hands of Orlac. It’s one thing to have an interesting idea for a script, but quite another to make that idea find a plausible life in a drama on the Big Screen. For example, the wreckage and aftermath of the train crash, in which Orlac the concert pianist loses his hands, is very well evoked.

While a killer and robber called Vasseur is to be executed for murdering an old money-lender, a plea is made to save Orlac’s hands as they are “his life”. An unscrupulous surgeon, called Dr. Serra, then transplants the hands of Vasseur onto his patient.

The film’s dynamic imagery is reinforced by a superb attention to detail. For example, Orlac’s wedding ring no longer fits after the transplant. And his handwriting is no longer the same. As a result of losing his hands, his career as a pianist comes to an end. He has lost the income he once earned. The former pianist and his wife sink into debt, beholden to their creditors. And, all the while, his alien new hands seem to have a life of their own, demanding blood. They are determined to ruin Orlac’s character and life.

In typical Expressionist style, Weine dramatizes the inner struggles of Orlac after he wakes up after the operation to find himself in a psychological nightmare. Horrified by the hands, which cannot play the piano, he starts to hallucinate, seeing an apparition of the murderer laughing at him, as well as brandishing his fists. The director expressively portrays the agony Orlac undergoes.

Both this rather macabre science fiction film and the novel on which it was based were decades ahead of their time, in the sense that the first human hand transplant was only performed by a team of surgeons in Lyons, France in September 1998. In 2015, doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia performed the first successful double hand transplant on a child. These are fairly recent medical and surgical advances.

Despite being based on an idea that was far-fetched and highly futuristic at the time, the movie succeeds as a plausible psychological thriller. This is due to its strong narrative structure, upholding the suspense and the sense of living a nightmare from which there is no escape. It is also the result of authentic acting from the whole cast, expressive photography and taut directing.

The Hands of Orlac is a highly imaginative, well-controlled and memorable work of cinematic Expressionism.