20 September 2012

The Hands of Orlac by Wiene, 1924

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:23 am


  1. My interest in this movie was stimulated by the contemporary cog-psych concept of “embodied mind.” Here’s the IMDb thumbnail for The Hands of Orlac:

    “A world-famous pianist loses both hands in an accident. When new hands are grafted on, he doesn’t know they once belonged to a murderer.”

    I recently posted a bit of Ways of the Hand, in which social psychologist David Sudnow describes how his hands learned to play jazz piano. Somewhat earlier I posted on neurologist Eric Sudnow’s book In Search of Memory. In it he wrote:

    “When I was a medical student in the 1950s, we were taught that the map of the somatosensory cortex discovered by Wade Marshall is fixed and immutable throughout life. We now know that idea is not correct. The map is subject to constant modification on the basis of experience… Thomas Elbert and his colleagues at the University of Konstanz in Germany compared images of violinists’ and cellists’ brains with images of nonmusicians’ brains [Elbert et al., Science, 1995]. Players of stringed instruments use the four fingers of the left hand to modulate the sound of the strings. The fingers of the right hand, which move the bow, are not involved in such highly differentiated movements. Elbert found that the area of the cortex devoted to the fingers of the right hand did not differ in string players and musicians, whereas representations of the fingers of the left hand were much more extensive — by as much as five times — in the brains of string players than in those of nonmusicians. Furthermore, musicians who began playing the instrument before age thirteen had larger representations of the fingers of their left hand than musicians who began playing after that age.”

    Two thumbs up for the great Conrad Veidt as Orlac. Veidt also played Cesare the somnambulist in Weine’s classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Later Veidt would play Major Strasser in Casablanca. Though successfully creepy and moody in old-school German expressionist style, the movie could use more pace. Either that, or the hands of the editor should have been more ruthless while wielding the scissors. But the big question for Orlac is this: does the will rule the hands? My hands want to reveal the movie’s answer, but my will…


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 September 2012 @ 5:58 am

  2. Like piano playing, acting is a body art. That’s especially true in silent films, where everything has to be done with movement, gesture, expression. Is it a stretch to give Orlac a self-reflexive interpretation? Veidt the body artist is placed in the hands of the screenwriter and the director. Theirs are murderers’ hands, forcing the artist to do their bidding, grafting onto him a fictional persona that is not his own. They’ve killed Veidt and replaced him with Orlac!


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 September 2012 @ 9:22 am

  3. Hmm… you said ” neurologist Eric Sudnow’s book In Search of Memory “. You meant of course ‘ Eric Kandel. That’s at least twice you’ve got Kandel’s name wrong – shows some immune resistance to letting Kandel’s name into your long-term memory, maybe. And no, I haven’t read it yet.

    I’ve read some reports that transplant recipients often feel they have received some part of the personality of the donor. Interesting.

    Conrad Veidt? I had a feeling I’d heard that name before. That’s the name of a key character – one of the superheroes ( I won’t say more and spoil it) – in Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ graphic novel, which was brilliantly and fastidiously made into a movie, to the undying devotion of comic fans, but the complete indifference of movie buffs, for some reason. The only sour note in the movie was that most fans, including me, felt that the character of Conrad Veidt, funnily enough, was miscast.

    If you’re tempted, best to read the graphic novel (this one, rarely, is worthy of such dignification) first. It’s a sort of satire of the DC Justice League of America – Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman… but there were copyright problems with using these characters ( that’s a really complicated bit of the DC story; there was a period where DC themselves couldn’t use their own big-names for legal reasons…) so the superheroes in Watchmen are sort-of made-up/sort-of harking back to some older, long since retired DC heroes from the thirties/forties… Within Watchmen, there’s anothere story running – a story one of the characters is following in a comic book on a news-stand – the Black Freighter, which is a brilliant sort of tales-of-the-supernatural Caribbean pirates thing. You have to get the deluxe director’s cut version of the movie to see that; it was left out of the theater version.

    I actually saw Hands of Orlac years ago, though I can’t remember much of it now. It was part of some sort of season one of the UK channels was running – maybe a Conrad Veidt season.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 22 September 2012 @ 11:22 pm

  4. I’m bad with names generally, but usually when citing authors I make the effort to get it right. Sudnow wrote Ways of the Hand, and I just repeated it for Kandel. Strange.

    The Watchmen I know from a different context — here’s part of the Wikipedia entry:

    In the Book of Enoch, the Watchers (Aramaic. עִירִין, iyrin), are angels dispatched to Earth to watch over the humans. They soon begin to lust for human women, and at the prodding of their leader Samyaza, they defect en masse to illicitly instruct and procreate among humanity. The offspring of these unions are the Nephilim, savage giants who pillage the earth and endanger humanity. Samyaza and associates further taught their human charges arts and technologies such as weaponry, cosmetics, mirrors, sorcery, and other techniques that would otherwise be discovered gradually over time by humans, not foisted upon them all at once. Eventually God allows a Great Flood to rid the earth of the Nephilim, but first sends Uriel to warn Noah so as not to eradicate the human race. While Genesis says that the Nephilim remained “on the earth” even after the Great Flood, Jude says that the Watchers themselves are bound “in the valleys of the Earth” until Judgment Day. (See Genesis 6:4 and Jude 1:6, respectively).

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy who wrote the graphic novel drew on this mythic source material. I too used to read superhero comics when I was a kid: Superman, Fantastic Four, The Metal Men, and so on — not much into Batman, since he had no superpowers.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 September 2012 @ 11:54 pm

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