❉ Jon Dear reviews Eureka’s release of the Expressionist thriller starring Conrad Veidt.
Eight years ago I had my heart valves replaced, and I now have part of a dead person inside of me. My pulmonary valve wasn’t always mine. I have no idea as to the identity of the valve’s originator, their age, gender or race and yet part of them lives on, and helps me to live on. Nowadays this is seen as an entirely good thing, a person died and consented to have their organs harvested (my, that is a disturbing verb) either for the benefit of an individual like myself via transplant or for the more general cause of medical and scientific advancement via research. Yet government sanctioned bodily harvesting remains a highly controversial issue, and you can see why. It raises fundamental issues between the boundaries of self and other as well as crossing the ultimate frontier by an all-invasive state. What’s remarkable then, is not so much that it happens, is that it’s overwhelming viewed as a positive.
I was offered a choice for my surgery; I could have opted for a metal and plastic valve but frankly I didn’t fancy having to take Warfarin for the rest of my life. The dehumanisation of self via artificial replacement is one thing, it goes to the core of what it is to be human. The transformation of self via organ transplant, that goes to the core of what it is to be you. And that’s about a good a basis for gothic fiction has it gets.
French writer Maurice Renard was one of the earliest proponents for organ transplantation as body horror in fiction and his 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) has proved fruitful for film makers. As well at Robert Wiene’s 1924 effort there’s The Hands of Orlac(1935, titled Mad Love in the US) with Colin Clive and Peter Lorre, which is repeatedly invoked in Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano (1947), The Hands of Orlac (1960) with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee, Hands of a Stranger (1962) directed by Newt Arnold and Body Parts (1991). More generally the horror meme of a malevolent, wilful hand can be seen in such productions as The Beast With Five Fingers (1946), The Addams Family (with Thing first appearing in 1954) and the Doctor Who serial The Hand of Fear (1976). And it even made it as far as cliché territory in The League of Gentleman episode The One Armed Man is King (2002). Renard was of course writing in the aftermath of the First World War where bodily mutilation was common and transplantation was moving from science fiction dream to medical necessity.
History has been harsh on director Robert Wiene, he’s almost entirely known for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the majority of praise for that production goes to the production designers or Conrad Veidt. Yet throughout Orlac you witness Wiene’s considerable range of skills, the first part of the film is action packed thriller, heavy with panic. The train crash scenes are rapid and busy, again the mechanised destruction of the Great War is seeded in the viewers’ minds to illustrate the unseen horrors of screen. The scenes in the hospital between Paul (Conrad Viedt) and his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) are extremely tactile and charged with erotic tension, setting up the relationship that begins to disintegrate when Paul can no longer bare to touch her with his newly acquired hands. Indeed this aspect, coupled with his inability to play music and thus earn his high standard of living can be read as a fear of castration and emasculation. Paul’s life and status is usurped by another man, a man whose power apparently extends beyond the grave and now haunts him in a very physical way.
The design in Orlac would still be as important as it was in Caligari but almost entirely different in realisation. Gone is the highly stylised anti-realism of the earlier film, in its place the use of space becomes all important. The hospital room where Paul wakes up after his accident makes sure to dwarf the bed in the corner of the frame so that the viewer feels the oppression with him. The placing of the window into the room (too high to be practical) means that antagonist Nera (Fritz Kortner) can leer in with a palpable sense of otherworldly power. The Orlacs’ home is sparsely furnished which mean all close ups give little sense of location. This contrasts sharply with the house of Paul’s father (Fritz Strassney) which is heavily gothic with an oversized front door and a lounge in which he sits on a throne like a medieval monarch.
Wiene would also heavily employ what would now be termed FX shots, with the dream sequence in particular giving a glimpse into Paul’s torment. Paul is of course the emotional heart of the film and Veidt gives the performance of his career conveying through expression and body language alone the anxiety of a person suffering from what we would now term PTSD but also questioning his sanity as he comes to believe his new hands, apparently transplanted from a killer have begun to infect him with murderous impulses. Now that certainly requires a suspension disbelief but what horror doesn’t? Indeed Paul’s told by the surgeon Dr. Serral (Hans Hommer) that his fears are clearly absurd because the hands don’t control the brain, that’s not how it works, and while you could apply that logic to any number of supernatural or pseudo-scientific film plots, the fact that Paul is having these murderous urges therefore becomes more disturbing because it actually means the desire to kill has always been latent inside him. It’s not the hands that cause him to want to kill, it’s the impotent rage brought about by life changing injuries, and that’s something that could happen to any of us.
Eureka’s Blu-Ray restoration features an excellent and unsettling score from Johannes Kalitzke as well as an alternate presentation with a comparison featurette. There’s a commentary from Stephen Jones and Kim Newman but the pick of the extras is Extremities, a video essay from David Cairns and Fiona Watson, which investigates the similarities between Orlac’s plot and Conrad Veidt’s life as well as the origins of Renard’s story and how the film fits into the wider cultural narrative of the 20th century.
SPECIAL EDITION BLU-RAY CONTAINS:
❉ Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase
❉ 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a restoration of the original film elements by Film Archiv Austria
❉ LPCM 2.0 audio
❉ Original German language intertitles with optional English subtitles
❉ Brand new feature length audio commentary with author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman
❉ Brand new video essay by filmmakers David Cairns and Fiona Watson
❉ Alternate presentation of The Hands of Orlac [SD, 110 minutes] – Courtesy of the F. W. Murnau Foundation, a presentation of the film struck from a different print source, featuring alternate takes of certain scenes. Includes a musical score by Paul Mercer
❉ Scene comparisons highlighting some of the differences between the two versions of the film
❉ PLUS: Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by Philip Kemp, and Tim Lucas
❉ ‘The Hands of Orlac’ [Orlac’s Hände] Masters of Cinema special Blu-ray edition (Cat.No. EKA70427) to be released 14 June 2021, Certificate PG (TBC). RRP £20.99. Available to order from Eureka Store.
❉ Jon Dear is a freelance writer on television and film. You can find more of his writing at www.viewsfromahill.com. He also hosts BERGCAST, a podcast on Nigel Kneale which can be found at bergcast.room207press.com.