Like his more famous The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene's The Hands of Orlac is ponderous but indelible. Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is a famous pianist whose hands—the tools of his trade and his wife Ivana's (Alexandra Sorina) favorite part of his body—are cutted off in a horrific train wreck. Replacement hands are transplanted onto him in an experimental procedure, but the hands are those of a recently-executed murderer. From now on the pianist is tortured by panic attacks and irrational fears. He believes that with the hands of the murderer he has also gained the murderer's predisposition to killing. Strange signs and bizarre threatening letters reinforce these fears. When his father is killed, with whom he was on bad terms, the pianist is suspected of the murder. He only finds peace by clearing up the plot.
The film is full of castration imagery, Freudian intimations (including a patriarchal ogre in a twisted castle), and assorted perversities (like the wife's erotic yearning to be touched), yet next to the relentlessly distorted subjectivity of Caligari, Wiene's handling here seems almost minimalist, keeping the camera angles mostly balanced as the horrors materialize through stark atmosphere and Veidt's extraordinary physical expressiveness. Paced like a funeral and saddled with one of the least satisfying endings in German expressionism, Orlac scarcely reaches the baroque complexities of The Man Who Laughs (where it was Veidt's grin, rather than his mitts, that tortured him). Nevertheless, it lingers as a unique waking nightmare both in the viewer's mind and in film history: He may have started a long line of unruly-appendage shocks (from the 1935 MGM remake Mad Love to the slapstick splatter of Evil Dead 2), but Wiene's greatest contribution was imagining, decades before Cronenberg, the ultimate horror of the body turning against itself.
DVDrip from the restored print by the Murnau Foundation. The copy is far from being pristine.