Art Synk

From the Director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Hands of Orlac

Film, April 1, 2022
the scream

The Hands of Orlac is a 1924 silent horror film based on Maurice Renard's novel Les Mains d'Orlac and directed by Robert Wiene. Wiene is best known for his film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which mixed expressionist ideas with realistic imagery. He employed these aesthetics for subsequent films and found great success with 1924's Hands of Orlac. On the heels of its success, it has been adapted countless times including Mad Love by Karl Freund, The Hand by Oliver Stone, a horror film anthology Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and Hands of a Stranger by Newt Arnold. 1992's Body Parts also drew inspiration from the film.


the scream

Paul Orlac, a concert pianist, loses his hands in a terrible railway accident. His wife, Yvonne, begs a surgeon to preserve his hands. Vasseur, a recently executed killer, has his hands transplanted by the surgeon. When Orlac discovers this, he becomes obsessed with terror. The existence of a knife he finds at his residence, similar to the one used by Vasseur, and the urge to kill torment him. He feels that, along with the hands, he has inherited the murderer's proclivity for violence. He confronts the surgeon, demanding that the hands be removed, but the physician tries to persuade him that a person's actions are directed by the mind and heart, not the hands.

Orlac's new hands are incapable of playing the piano, and he and his wife eventually run out of money. Creditors provide them an additional day to settle their obligations. Yvonne approaches Paul's father for money, but he refuses. Orlac then rushes to see his father, only to discover that he has been stabbed to death with the same knife as Vasseur. He begins to suspect he is the murderer. Soon after he encounters a man who claims to be Vasseur and informs Orlac that the same surgeon who performed the hand transplant also performed a head transplant on Vasseur's body.

Visual Symbolism

the scream

This film plays with the idiom of being "caught red handed." Orlac is caught with blood on his hands, but if he is not in control, does that make him a murderer? The audience is left to ponder this as Orlac spirals into paranoia. Weine expertly externalizes his characters' emotions using an Expressionist approach. Dramatic camera angles, such as the close up of the punching fist, and Orlac recreating The Scream are strong examples of visual elements. The set is big and sparse, and an oppressive atmosphere develops. As they grow more and more weary of their predicaments, it dwarfs the characters and makes them appear childlike.

Silent films are a tremendous source of inspiration for all visual storytellers. Due to the lack of sound, the plot must be given purely through imagery. When one sense is removed, the other becomes more vivid. Any artist feeling stuck with their visual direction should give these old films a watch. Inspiration is guaranteed.

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