“Orlacs Hände” / “The Hands of Orlac” (1924)
A Necessary Caveat: The following article contains analysis which reveals details of the subject film’s climactic events. Such details, if one wishes to approach the film with virgin eyes, should be approached with the utmost caution.
Peculiar are the paths of reputation. Judging from the literal merits and deficiencies of certain films deemed “classic” (another ten articles might be written arguing for the abolishing of such meaningless laudation which only serves to obscure genuine achievement among the mountainous rubble canonized by overzealous laudation), one might well consider a more exclusionary form of critical evaluation which would momentarily discard the history and legacy of the cinema, and thus cast aside all argumentation (irrelevant in the evaluation of a single work) as to a placement of historical importance, influence or as a significant part of a particular artist’s oeuvre. Far too many examples of an inferior work ride the coattails during a period of cultural evolution; often achieving a false or exaggerated accreditation for pioneering innovation that is all too enthusiastically acclaimed as revolutionizing an art form (“Citizen Kane” being the bellwether example of a film granted commendations for a staggering quantity of innovations, when in fact the film actually contains none of its own invention, but rather exists as an aesthetic clearinghouse for a brilliant collective usage of disparate innovative techniques previously in use in less heralded circumstances), while others, in retrospect, profit immeasurably in reputation by simply arriving at an opportune moment in history.
Such an exalted but largely unmerited reputation precedes any useful consideration of the film work of Robert Weine, largely overshadowed by one particular production, the 1920 “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, which upon viewing fails to reveal a justification for its mythic status; beyond its extraordinary carnival fun house art direction, it’s a rather pedestrian film, making it a film better appreciated in still frames rather than as a whole. However, if Weine’s film merits attention for its legitimately novel advances in both in the pioneering of narrative exploration of the unconscious mind and the use of the twist ending, it is still a stilted drama which overuses the novelty of its hallucinogenic settings early in the film. With his 1924 melodrama “Orlacs Hände”, Weine continues with the notion of a horrific loss of personal control by way of a manipulated psychopathy, but in this case, the outside misdirection is suggested rather than overtly controlled, with the psychological button pushing in “Orlacs Hände” deriving more from a case of emotional instability nudged along by an external source. That the source is eventually revealed to have an almost pedestrian criminal purpose does not undercut the central conflict of the drama, which is that of the eponymous Orlac with himself. For much of the film, the viewer is presented a tale of psychic implosion; the danger seeming to spring from an inner source that is situationally triggered; a suggestion that is an ultimately irrational camouflaged feint. However, regardless of the narrative’s eventual conclusion, the film deals in (and in this way, is also innovative) a thematic thread, sinister in it’s inescapable implications: that the body, through severe traumatic experience may be severed from the control of the individual and turn on itself. That this production would prove to be the antecedent of a tradition of films which would later come to be known as “body horror”, establishes “Orlacs Hände” as a point of cinematic evolution though- again -does the acknowledgement of the film’s contribution toward future thematic expansion in (especially) the horror genre, automatically elevate the movie’s material worth?
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