Orlacs Hände

Robert Wiehe directed two great classics: Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari in 1919 and Orlacs Hände in 1924. In both movies Condrad Veidt is, in an extremely grotesque fashion, mixed up with other people's murderous schemes.

The protagonist Paul Orlac (Veidt) is a pianist - not only a supreme master of the instrument but perhaps the greatest virtuoso of his time. There is a terrible accident and Orlac loses what is most precious to a pianist: his hands. "His hands . . . for God's sake . . . his hands!" his wife cries out in anguish to the doctor. "Save his hands . . . his hands are his life . . ."

The doctor promises to do his best and he does manage to save Orlac's hands. But there's something a little odd about them. Why do people keep staring at his hands? Why is there a man who laughs at him when looking at his hands? Orlac wonders and wonders, getting more and more anxious. He has nightmares - a giant hand reaches for him surrealistically as he lies on his hospital cot.

Awakening from his nightmare Orlac finds a note on his bed. He reads it and is aghast: "Your hands couldn't be saved . . . Dr Serral gave you different hands . . . the hands of the executed robber and murderer Vasseur!" Orlac looks at his hands in horror. It's as if the hands no longer are a part of him but have a bizarre will of their own. He faints on the floor.

He confronts the doctor. It is true.

The thought of a murderer's hands starts to drive him insane. He vows never to touch another human being with his soiled hands. He tries playng the piano - it's hopeless. His new hands can produce only vile cacophony. He looks up old newspaper articles about Vasseur's crimes. When he comes home he finds a dagger sticking out of his door. A dagger with an X on the handle. A dagger like the one with which Vasseur performed his horrid deeds. He pulls it out and cluches it to his breast, then furtively hides it inside the grand piano.

His hands have become like claws, all wizened and withered: "Damned . . . cursed . . . hands!"

When night falls and darkness descends upon the house the hands draw, pull, him towards the grand piano. He's almost like a somnambulist, the hands control him and he follows them in absolute horror; he's utterly helpless. He stabs the air in front of him with his knife, slashing it to ribbons.

There's a mysterious and sinister looking man in a long black cape and floppy hat who's been following Orlac. He seems to have some menacing hold over Orlacs maid. He's trying to force her to do something, something against Orlac. At the same time the creditors are closing in. As Orlac no longer can play, he's got no income. And the debts keep on piling. Orlac's wife goes to his father. He's a rich man. He can save them. The father refuses, coldly and sadistically stating that he would want Orlac to become a destitute pauper: he hates his son.

His wife entreats and begs Orlac. He must go to his father - surely Orlac's father must help them. He must.

Orlac goes to his father's house. He finds the door unlocked. This is highly unusual as the door is always locked and closely guarded by a trusted servant. The house seems empty. In one room Orlac finds his father lying on the floor - with a dagger sticking out of him. It's the dagger with the X on the handle. The murderer Vasseur's dagger. Orlac alerts the police.

One of the detectives recognises the dagger. With his magnifying glass he examines the prints on it and proclaims them to be - Vasseur's! Vasseur is dead but his hands still murder! How is that possible?

Orlac flees the scene of the crime in horror. The sinister man in the long black cape follows him. It's the same man who laughed at him in the hospital. "You are your father's heir," the man says to Orlac, "you will pay me a million francs." "Why," says Orlac. "For my hands," the man says, then reveals the mechanical contraptions he has instead of hands: it's the executed murderer Vasseur!

The same experiment the doctor did with Vasseur's hands his assistant did with Vasseur's head! Vasseur shows him the scar on his neck where his head was removed and then, after the re-animation, re-attached.

And now, if Orlac doesn't pay him a million francs by tomorrow the police will receive information that it was Orlac who killed his father. The evidence against Orlac is quite overwhelming. The maid saw him with the dagger. The fingerprints are from his hands. He has the motive. It's quite open and shut.

Orlac knows he has to pay. His wife says no; he must go to the prosecutor and tell everything. He does so and the prosecutor immediately signs out a warrant for his arrest. The detective, however, stops this. He has Orlac get the money and meet the blackmailer. When he does, the police strike. "Vasseur" turns out to be a hospital assistant called Nera and well known to the police. The scar and the missing hands are only fake. He fesses up to blackmail but not murder.

The murder was done with Vasseurs hands, not his. Orlac, Nera points out, now has those hands. Orlac is arrested. But just then Orlac's wife and maid burst in. The maid comes clean. She knows all. She's been the murderers unwilling assistant: it was Nera who killed old Orlac. He knew Vaisseur and had rubber gloves made from his hands, gloves with Vaisseur's prints. And what's more, Vaisseur never murdered anyone. It was Nera who framed him for a murder he himself commited.

Vaisseur's hands are clean, not the hands of a murderer at all. And that means that Orlac's hands too are clean.

The real culprit is arrested and all ends on a happy note.

Orlacs Hände is not as expressionistic as Caligari but it does have its fine moments, especially when the camera lingers on the crushing anguish of Orlac, the sheer terror on his face when he believes himself to be doomed to murder somebody, the panic when his hands literally lead him on to terrors unknown.

Will he murder? Did he murder? These are the focal points of the movie.

However, everything is resolved far too easily and conveniently. It was all a frame-up. It really amounts to a sell-out and I for one feel cheated at the end. It would have been so sweet if his hands had been those of a murderer and had had a will of their own. It would have been even sweeter if the murderer had come back from the dead. Alas and alack, that was not to be. The supremely titillating supernatural elements prove to be just fake. This leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.

I much prefer the ambiguous ending of Caligari - now that one really leaves a powerful after taste and lingers under one's skin literally for ever. Never for an instant do we get relief from the opressing atmosphere of the film, never for once do we feel it's over and we can relax. The tension lives on and simply keeps growing even after the ending. Therefore the impact is immeasurably more potent.

Orlacs Hände shows great potential but fails to live up to it. The gripping scenes don't quite make up for the sell-out ending. Not quite.

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