A 1924 silent film that asks which one is the murderer: the body or the mind?

Imagine it is 1924. There is not a lot known about body grafting, medically – let alone a replacement of an entire body part. On screen you watch a silent cinema about how replacing a person’s hands with a murderer’s hands gives him murderous tendencies, it is bound to put scary speculative thoughts in your mind. Thriller stories are yet to become repetitive, and thus this one still feels new. Body horror, if I may call it that (we will get to the horror part later), and causing psychological terror without the use of grotesque or terrifying images on the screen can be a fresh experience. Returning to 2021, can the same film have something to offer even in the present day?

The Hands of Orlac was released in 1924. Directed by Robert Wiene and adapted from Maurice Renard’s book, it has a run time of 97 minutes. Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is a great pianist, but he loses both his hands in a terrible train accident. Orlac’s wife, Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina), is devastated and requests the surgeon to save his hands. Without Orlac’s knowledge, his surgeon transplants the hands of a recently executed murderer, Vasseur. Through an anonymous note, Orlac learns of his hands being Vasseur’s following which he starts to have murderous tendencies and loses his piano talents. Then one day, Orlac’s father is found dead and on him are Vassuer’s knife and his fingerprints.

The film presents to us a mutation of Descartes’ mind and body problem. How can the mind and body be related in terms of actions, and more than that, what effect can they have on each other? In the play Hayavadana, Girish Karnad’s characters present the problem in terms of incompleteness: “One beats the body into shape, but one can’t beat away the memories in it. Isn’t that surprising?” The Hands of Orlac, borrowing the same problem, asks us how can a transplanted body part have a mind of its own; are the memories of the hands gone with them when they are replaced, can it come with its own memories and ambitions? The film answers this question very plainly in one of its textual dialogues: “The hands don’t just control men. The head, the heart control the body, also the hands.”

One 1924 review said: “the presentation of the subject is extremely gripping and tension is maintained right up to the last scene…The direction is taut and careful, especially in the very realistic scenes of the railway accident, the decor tasteful, the events of the action effectively emphasised…” (Paimann’s Filmlisten). There is a great use of smoke in the film as a stark contrast to the otherwise darker scenes. The first time we encounter smoke is during the train accident, in the midst of the carcass of the collided trains. And the next time we see it is when Orlac is having a nightmare of a strange man, the man he saw right before learning the truth about his new hands. Because of the strong presence of smoke in the former, the emotions of frenzy and discomfort of the accident are carried over to when we encounter the smoke again during his nightmare, renewing the feeling of turmoil felt earlier.

Throughout the film, we see very slow movements of all the on-screen characters. Their facial expressions and bodily movements all happen at a pace where we can observe the different changes, combining both expressionist and naturalistic visuals. The slow movements in a thriller give rise to the discomfort of something misplaced. And for a good portion of the film, we see Orlac having murderous tendencies once he finds a knife similar to that of Vasseur’s. Orlac turns to the camera with his hands outstretched as if coming for the viewer, we also see him stabbing the air multiple times, and in another scene, he is almost about to stab his own hand. This last scene also makes us wonder if he sees his hand as the ‘other’s’.

The psychological changes in him include his piano skills. In the first scene, we see Orlac as a great pianist. But he tries playing the piano again after the transplant, and the results are terrible. The silent movie did not need a background score for us to understand the stark difference there is in his skills – it is portrayed well enough by the troubled expressions and reactions of Orlac and his wife, Yvonne.

Interestingly, the film is titled the Hands of Orlac and not the Hands of Vasseur. The horror lies in the title. Through another one of its textual dialogues, the film tells us: “The spirit rules the hands. Nature and a strong will can do anything.” It is clear to us in the film that Vasseur was unjustly executed – he was in fact innocent of the crime he was charged for. Orlac is happy that his hands are not guilty of any crimes, and he touches his wife’s face as he had promised in the letter shown to us at the beginning of the movie before stopping all physical intimacy. It is a brilliant scene because while we understand the happiness of the couple, it is a dark realization that the strong murderous tendencies he had during the film were all his own motivations.

While the wonder that is packed in that 1924 review of the movie may have faded now, Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac is not uninteresting. We do not know Orlac before the transplant, and neither do we know anything of him after he realizes he cannot blame the murderous tendencies on his hands. We may as well know more about his hands than him. It isolates us and perhaps destroys the familiarity from the character whose slow movements we focused on throughout the 90 minutes and have felt a kind of pity for. We do not know Orlac.

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