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My Letterboxd Watchlist #2: The Hands of Orlac (1924)

I feel like I’m climbing up a mountain that grows larger with each step… I continue the long journey through my Letterboxd watchlist, yet I keep adding films to the list, which was at 521, now expanded to 531. As I mentioned last time, these posts will be short: no major credits, minimal research only, and no deep analysis, just my gut reactions. Today I’m doing some finger exercises on the keyboard to bring you a few thoughts on The Hands of Orlac (1924).


The Set-Up

The Hands of Orlac (1924) is a silent horror thriller reuniting The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) actor Conrad Veidt with director Robert Wiene. Veidt plays Paul Orlac, who survives a train crash, but is injured, having to have his hands amputated. Not good news when you’re a famous concert pianist. But wait, a surgeon can take the hands of a dead man, graft them onto Orlac’s arms, and we’re good to go for at least a few Beethoven sonatas. Only the hands belonged to an executed murderer named Vasseur. (Cue the harsh piano music.) Even worse, a police investigation finds a murder victim covered in the fingerprints of… (harsher, more frantic piano music) Vasseur, whose hands now belong to Orlac. You get the picture.

Who’s Responsible for This?

I was convinced I saw this film on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1000 Essential Films list, but it’s not there. (Two other films by Wiene are there: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Raskolnikov, 1922.) It’s also not on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list, so I’m not sure where I first heard about it. (That’s why I’m waiting on Letterboxd to add a way to keep up with who recommends movies to you. I know you’re working on it, Letterboxd, but my memory isn’t what it used to be, so please hurry.)

The Verdict

With a running time of nearly two hours, The Hands of Orlac can be a bit plodding (especially in the first 20 or so minutes), but the creepy German Expressionism and masterful cinematography by Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin make each moment worth lingering upon for an extended time. It’s always a pleasure to watch Conrad Veidt, and he’s wonderful here. The Paul Mercer score on Criterion Channel is absolutely marvelous. The Hands of Orlac doesn’t use the wild visual palate of Dr. Caligari, but it’s impressive in its own way. It’s a must-see.

Would I watch it again?


Where can I find it?

The Hands of Orlac is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, but not for long. Its run expires on August 31. It’s still playing on Kanopy, and you can rent it on Amazon for three bucks. Although it is not yet available on Blu-ray in North America (hopefully soon), you can find a Region B disc available from the German label Absolut Medien from 2019. You can also find a Kino DVD from 2008. While you’re at it, check out the American version, Mad Love (1935) starring Peter Lorre.

Photos: IMDb, The Film Yap, The Mind Reels

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