The Hands of Orlac (1924)
Directed by Robert Wiene
Tuesday, October 30, at Spectacle
More than simply morbid fantasies reflecting how alien and unruly our material selves can seem to us, the best body horror films corrupt the physical with the metaphysical. Wiene's Orlac from 1924, for instance, nearly re-imagines the human corpus as a cluster of autonomous souls that not only govern each appendage but also collectively if dissonantly produce consciousness. When famed piano player Orlac (Conrad Viedt) has his cash-cow digits damaged in a train wreck, doctors suture the hands of a recently executed murderer named Vasseur onto his wrist-stumps; once released from the hospital, Orlac can no longer spank the ivories with ease, and he finds himself strangely drawn to the knives lying about the home he and his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) share. From then on, Orlac begins to view the world through his foreign fingers, and he's tormented by visions of his secondhand hands' violent, haptic memories. (Dramatic long shots isolate the sleeping musician in his dark bed while gargantuan, double-exposed arms reach out to his sweating, spasm-wracked body.) What's more, when Orlac's rich father is murdered after his daughter-in-law approaches him about a loan, Vasseur's fingerprints are found at the crime scene, though Orlac has no recollection of having killed anyone.
Implicit in this conflict is that Orlac's hands possess his soul, or a crucial sliver thereof, because they are his livelihood; their spiritual significance conflates mysticism with socialism, wherein a man earns his nobility through grueling contributions to the common good. It's not surprising that after the train accident, Yvonne reacts to the news of her husband's crippling as if he had been killed; Orlac's hands are the source of her wealth and status, and quite possibly the only means with which her husband can satisfy her sexually. (She's unduly obsessed with restoring his ability to touch her.) The hands literally hold all the power, and Viedt's physically demanding histrionics throughout (a sort of dramatic inversion of Harold Lloyd's gawky, limb-flailing shtick) connect this theme to the curse of the aging actor: bodily features that were once bankable become liabilities in senescence, and ugly proof of time's corruption. If Orlac were merely vain, his suffering would be an easy, karma-oriented pill to swallow, but Wiene more harrowingly suggests that all men are doomed to rely on their bodies—fleshy, flighty mechanisms with a swiftly approaching expiration date.