Could the hands of a murderer make you evil? In Robert Weine’s silent classic The Hands of Orlac (1924), talented pianist Paul Orlac loses both of his hands in a horrific railway accident and then spirals into madness upon the discovery that his new hands are transplants from a vicious killer. Conrad Veidt shines as Orlac with a performance that is unusually naturalistic for the silent era – he’s physical and highly expressive for sure, but there’s genuine emotion here; Orlac’s turn to insanity will leave you more than a little heartbroken. Weine’s direction is top-notch, with a noticeably more natural presentation than his expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Here the crooked, painted sets are swapped out for something a bit more traditional, as if to foreshadow the movement towards the more realistic ‘talkies’ of the late twenties.
It’s a thrill to witness the history of horror take shape. But it’s not just an academic exercise. The film is really quite spooky, and destined to keep giving audiences nightmares for generations to come.