(9/10) The Austrian 1924 film that inspired cult classics like Mad Love, The Beast with Five Fingers and Body Parts is a tour de force of psychological Expressionist terror. Horror icon Conrad Veidt plays a pianist who is driven mad after receiving a hand transplant from a hanged murderer.
The Hands of Orlac (Orlacs Hände). 1924, Austria/Germany. Directed by Robert Wiene. Written by Louis Nerz. Based on a novel by Maurice Renard. Starring: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Carmen Cartellieri. IMDb score: 7.1. Tomatometer: 86/100. Metacritic: N/A.
I remember seeing Orlac’s Hände a few years back when still rather new to German Expressionism and being completely blown away by it, so there was a slight sense of trepidation as I sat down to review it anew. Was it really as good as I remembered? Did it hold up to a second viewing, now that I’d immersed myself further in this style of filmmaking? Well, as you can see by my rating of 9/10, it did. This is genuinely still on the list of my all-time favourite films, despite its minor flaws, of which the worst is that at 1 h 50 minutes, it’s too long for its rather simple plot.
The film revolves around Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt), a famous pianist who damages his hands beyond repair in a train accident. His wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) begs the doctor (Hans Homma) to save Orlac’s hands, and in an experimental procedure, he transplants the hands of a freshly executed murderer onto Orlac’s arms. When he finds out about his new hands, Orlac’s joy over the prospect of returning home to make love to his wife turns into terror and despair. The sensitive and superstitious Orlac feels that the murderer’s hands are unclean, and vow’s never to touch a another human being with them. Neither is he able to play the piano with them, which is not only a deep tragedy for him personally, but also leads the couple into financial ruin, as he isn’t able to provide for the family anymore, and amasses a great deal of debt. Orlac sinks deeper into his terror and madness as he gets nightly visitations, real and hallucinatory, from a strange man who taunts him and reminds him of his murderous hands. Orlac’s hands now start to affect his behaviour, especially as he mysteriously stumbles across the the famous marked knife used by the former owner of his hands, Vasseur.
Like in a trance, Orlac starts walking around his house at night, re-enacting Vasseur’s murder of a money-lender, warning his wife not to come near him. He tries to stab his hands with the knife, but is unable to do it. The next day he visits the surgeon, begging him to remove the hands, as they “demand crime! Blood! Murder!” At home, he breaks all the phonograph records he has of himself playing the piano, he distances himself from his wife and falls into ever deeper despair. Meanwhile his wife visis Orlac’s rich father (Fritz Strassny) who despises his son and Yvonne, to beg him for a loan in order to pay off the creditor. He refuses, telling Yvonne he hates Paul. Not long after, both he and his butler are killed with Vasseur’s knife, and Vasseur’s fingerprints are found on the handle. As the owner of Vasseur’s hands are now Orlac, he is now convinced that he has unknowingly committed the murders. But then he is approached by the mysterious man who has visited him with taunts and mockery. The man makes a terrifying revelation, and the movie makes a left turn in a whole new direction.
The Hands of Orlac was released in 1924, in the Golden Age of German, or Weimar, cinema, even if it was primarily an Austrian and not a German production. It was based on a novel by French author Maurice Renard, called Les Mains d’Orlac, published in “feuilleton”, or serial, format in 1920. Director of the film was the pioneering but controversial director Robert Wiene, and starred Conrad Veidt, the actor who is more than any other associated with German Expressionist films.
Robert Wiene was born to German parents in current day Poland in 1873, the son of a renowned theatre actor, studied law in Vienna, Austria, and started acting on stage in 1908. In 1909 he had taken over two small theatre stages in Vienna in order to turn them into film studios, and started his film career as a screenwriter. He directed his first movie in 1912. The film that made his name was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released in February 1920, a movie that shook the medium of film to its very core. Generally seen as the first and perhaps greatest of the German Expressionist films, its skewed, surrealist, stage-like design, claustrophobic feel, dramatic lighting, intense, exaggerated, pantomime-like acting and its psychological horror story marked a completely new style of filmmaking. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired countless filmmakers to pick up the style and launched the already bustling Weimar cinema into the stratosphere. To this very day the legacy of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari can be plainly seen in horror films, fantasy, thrillers, science fiction and many other genres and styles.
That the film came out of Germany at the time it did really wasn’t that much of a surprise, in hindsight. Directors like Paul Wegener, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and perhaps most importantly Richard Oswald had been flirting with with Expressionist styles for half a decade, Oswald in particular, with his early horror films and dark melodramas, like The Tales of Hoffmann (1916, review) and Unheimliche Geschichten (1919). The Expressionist art movement, dedicated to portraying the inner life of Man, rather than objective reality, was strong in Germany, especially within the Bauhaus school. Germany’s literary tradition was rife with themes lending themselves to the psychedelic estetique of Expressionism, Goethe’s Faust, doppelgängers, and not least E.T.A. Hoffmann’s surrealist, psychological horror tales. And then there was the guilt, the trauma, the terror and the confusion left by WWI.
What was surprising was that it was Robert Wiene who became the pioneer of this new art form. Looking at his preceding 60-odd screenplays and 20 directed feature films, nothing in his portfolio even remotely suggested The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He was known as a reliable, if ordinary, journeyman director and had done some comedy, some crime film, mostly run-of-the-mill melodrama, all of it blissfully unremarkable. And then: BOOM! The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dark, disturbing, hallucinatory, genre-defining, earth-shattering, completely unique and to this day one of the greatest films ever put on screen. Up there alongside Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, Citizen Kane, Psycho, Rashomon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pulp Fiction and a few others.
I would love to delve into the peculiarities of the birth of The Cabineth of Dr. Caligari, but that’s not the film at hand here, so I’ll try to restrain myself. But in short: Wiene was partly driven to create his unique style for economical reasons. The odd sets and the choice to film 98 percent of the film indoors were the results of a complete lack of resources, Wiene knew he didn’t have the money to make realistic sets, so he fired the original art director and hired three Bauhaus artists to make the cheapest sets he could have, and instead make them surreal. The screenplay wasn’t his, and it was heavily edited by the film’s planned director, Fritz Lang, who opted out as he had too many other projects going. And he had the privilege to work with three of the greatest Expressionist actors who ever walked this Earth: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss and Lil Dagover.
And oddly enough, with a few exceptions, Wiene returned to making wonderfully unremarkable melodramas after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as if nothing had happened. This, along with claims from Expressionist purists that Wiene didn’t understand Expressionism, and some ill-willed slander reported as truth, has led to the fact that Wiene was for several decades belittled as a director and his actual contributions to the greatness of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari questioned. By many he has been seen merely as a hack who happened to be in the right place at the right time. This view has further been strengthened by the fact that his next two forays into Expressionism: Genuine (1920) and Raskolnikow (1923) did not live up to the expectations set by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
However, I would argue that lightning doesn’t strike the same spot twice, and that The Hands of Orlac is the pudding that proves that Wiene was in fact, on occasion, a remarkable director. And as it turns out, later research into the making of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Wiene’s career has turned up that many of the myths surrounding the production of the film and Wiene’s alleged non-involvement in artistic decisions comes out of Siegfried Kracauer’s 1946 book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, and are based almost solely on a lecture given in 1940 by one of the screenwriters who was trying to blow his own horn. Later discovered documents, scripts and notes have shown that Wiene did in fact do extensive script revisions and had a large hand in deciding the film’s visuals and thematic content.
In fact, I would say that Wiene’s biggest mistake was that he did try to remake The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920, with Genuine, written in part by the same team that wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but without the benefit of Fritz Lang’s revisions. Set designer Cesare Klein tried to copy the look and feel of the former film, but now with a bigger budget, and partly succeeded, but went over the top in his design, making the film too visually noisy. The plot is deeply flawed, the film is marred by an embarrassing Orientalism and the actors aren’t up to the task of replacing the amazing cast of … Caligari.
But Wiene quickly learned his lesson. As blogger Moondog writes at The Silver Screen Surfer: “Much like Kubrick’s 2001, Caligari was not only a ground breaker but a cul-de-sac. It’s visual style was just too distinctive to imitate without looking like a carbon copy and the great German Expressionists like FW Murnau, Fritz Lang and Paul Wegener soon found other ways to achieve the nightmare effect they wanted”. For his 1923 film Raskolnikow, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevski’s classic Crime and Punishment, Wiene made his sets darker, cleaner, still surreal but now more three-dimensional. He got rid of the whimsical costumes from Genuine. And instead of trying to emulate the exaggerated acting of …Caligari, he chose to populate his film with Russian actors taken from the Moscow Art Theatre, led by the legendary Konstanin Stanislavski – a troupe dedicated to realism and naturalism, a stark contrast to the Expressionist acting method. The result is not unproblematic, but a very interesting experiment in Expressionist film.
What is clear is that Wiene was no Expressionist purist, and was probably not even interested in creating films that adhered to a dogmatic formula – thankfully! He was an entertainer, a filmmaker, who occasionally wanted to experiment with the limits and possibilities of the medium. All of his four (preserved) films that can loosely be placed under the Expressionist umbrella are markedly different, and each of them plays with the concept of Expressionism in different ways, and in 1924 he found a functioning formula with The Hands of Orlac.
Here Wiene has dropped the surrealist plywood sets in favour of more realistic ones. But still they are not realistic, in fact the rooms in The Hands of Orlac are symbols of rooms, immensely exaggerated, spacious halls, draped in eternal darkness with very sparse furniture, as to convey Paul Orlac’s feelings of loneliness and desolation. The music room has a piano. Period. The bedroom has a bed. No chairs, tables, cupboards, no windows, lamps or paintings on the walls. We can see outlines and shapes of columns, stairs and monolithically painted wallpaper. Oftentimes the actors are merely lit by a spotlight, other times a single, gargantuan lamp hanging from the ceiling. The movie is filled with corners in which to hide from the terrors in the minds of the characters, massive chairs behind which the actors crouch, towering Gothic archways and walls behind which some new horror may lurk at any time.
The stark, dark sets are juxtaposed by the ferocious acting, in particular that by Conrad Veidt. As the Black Hole Reviews blog puts it: “Conrad Veidt […] has to convince us he’s frightened of his own hands. Not an easy task, but the film is a tour de force nearly two hours long, made fascinating by the extreme ‘horror acting’ of the cast.
For want of a better phrase, ‘horror acting’ means to me that someone has to convey extremes of fear and madness when confronted by the impossible, the supernatural, or the downright evil. This is exaggerated to match the extreme circumstances. I’m talking about the frenzied state that ‘the final girl’ has to convey when she’s cornered by a killer, or Ash’s descent into madness as the whole house conspires against him. […]. But there’s a fine line between successfully ‘hitting these heights’ and over-acting. […] . This is a rare and difficult skill.”
Alfred Eaker writes that Veidt’s performance “can only be described as expressed inner rhythm. His acting, like the greatest of silent actors, is a visceral dance.” Similarly Lotte Eisner writes in the book The Haunted Screen that he “dances a kind of expressionist ballet, bending and twisting extravagantly, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the murderous dagger held by hands which do not seem to belong to him”. It is an awesome acting challenge to make something like your own hands seem completely alien to yourself, as if it is some dark menace stalking you, something you would like to hack off and get as far away from as you could. But there they are, every waking moment, and they even haunt you in your dreams. And I think in these praises to Veidt’s physicality enough isn’t said about the deep wells of emotion that he draws on in his roles. In his very best roles, like the Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Orlac and Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928), he inhabits an aching sadness and a touching fragility. His emotions are always there, plainly on his skin for all to see, which, in my opinion, makes it possible for him to pull of the feat that is mentioned in Black Hole Reviews, that of acting in a highly exaggerated and expressive manner, without ever seeming to overact.
The film isn’t wholly without problems. The first problem is one that wouldn’t have bothered the movie-going public in the twenties, namely the length of the movie. The original German theatrical cut was 92 minutes long, but apparently this was after German censors had requested almost half an hour of cuts. However, 2013 a new version was released with material that had been cut from the original edit, bringing the total duration of the movie up to 112 minutes, and unfortunately this is 20 minutes too much, as the film starts dragging in the middle. This is the version that is now readily available online.
The second problem is the ending. I don’t want to reveal too much, but apparently the ending is true to the source novel. At around the beginning of the final quarter of the film there’s a plot twist that sort of pulls the rug from out under the story, in the sense that it removes a lot of the supernatural mystery and replaces it with a more mundane crime mystery. This twist does add a very interesting psychological spin to the proceedings, but does seem like a bit of a cop-out ending. Interestingly enough, this sort of last-minute twist was something of a trademark of Robert Wiene’s as he used it both in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Genuine. Changing the ending of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was actually Fritz Lang’s suggestion: in his opinion the audience needed the bewildering film to end with a sense of a return to normalcy, and apparently Wiene took this suggestion to heart. Even though the emotional ending of The Hands of Orlac is completely satisfactory, intellectually you do feel sort of cheated out of the confection.
The film was both a commercial and critical success upon its release in Germany, however it got in problem with censors in 1925, not because of its gruesome subject matter, but because of the portrayal of police work. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s say that a central plot point hinges on a novel way by which a character is able to deceive the police. The trick involved a technique used by police detectives that was still quite new in the twenties, and the film purportedly showed criminals a way of getting around this new technique, which the Ministry of the Interior in Dresden thought wasn’t necessarily the greatest idea. But after the matter had been reviewed at court, criminology experts decided that the trick used in the film wasn’t feasible as an actual technique of fooling investigators, and belonged purely in the realm of fantasy.
The film wasn’t a huge success in the States, mainly because an entire reel was edited out, leaving viewers and critics alike confused. But by the mid-thirties there were enough veterans from the German film industry in Hollywood that a number of German Expressionist classics got sound remakes or versions. One of these was cinematographer-turned-director Karl Freund, who headed a big-budget (as far as horror films went) MGM adaptation of Renard’s novel called Mad Love (1935), with a star cast including people like Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive and Keye Luke. The film deviated greatly from the novel, focusing more on Lorre’s villain than Clive’s pianist, but it was both critically and commercially successful, and is seen by some critics as even better than the 1924 version.
Another version, called The Hands of Orlac, was made as a British-French production in 1960, starring Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee, and yet another one as a French TV movie in 1990. Furthermore, unauthorised versions were made in abundance, often changing enough of the story as to bypass copyright claims, such as The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), Hands of a Stranger (1962), as segment of the horror anthology film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), a segment of Rod Serling’s TV series Night Gallery (1970), as well as Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1981). The cult classic Body Parts (1991) also carries enough resemblance as to be deemed more or less directly derived from The Hands of Orlac. In 2012 a French (authorised) TV movie called Le Mains de Roxana, with a female protagonist, was made.
Some credit must naturally go to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the very first body horror novel, however it is often forgotten that the original novel didn’t actually spell out that the creature was made from different body parts – that was a 20th century addition. In that sense, much of the transplant and stitched-together-bodyparts books and films made past 1909 can really draw its lineage from Maurice Renard. All the brain switcheroo pulps and films so popular from the thirties to the sixties came from Renard’s earlier novel Doctor Lerne, the original transplant novel, released in 1909, in which he introduced the cyborg, the the human transplant, the animal-human hybrid, etc. More on Renard further down.
One can question wether haunted body parts really can be classified as science fiction, but then we should remember than back in 1924 transplants of any body parts were still absolute science fiction. A first semi-successful test with a hand transplant was made in the sixties, but because of the weak immuno-suppressors available at the time, the hand was soon rejected from the recipient’s arm. The first truly successful long-term hand transplant was made as late as the early 2000s. While the theory of transplants was widely discussed in medical journals and to some extent in the mainstream press in the twenties, there was also a serious moral, religious and philosophical discussion on the matter. The main question was “where does the soul reside?” Can a body part be separated from the essence of a person, of will some part of a donor’s soul or personality be transferred with a donated body part? From a religious point of view the question was also to what extent a dead person’s body could be mined for parts before it amounted to desecration of the corpse.
The discussion of the relationship between the body and the soul were prominent in mid- and late 19th century sci-fi, with Shelley as an early firebrand. Edgar Allan Poe wrote several stories on the subject in the 1840s, including one with a soldier consisting almost completely out of prosthetics, a pseudo-cyborg or Proto-Robocop if you will. Nathaniel Hawthorne, C.W. Morrow and naturally Robert Louis Stevenson were other authors who wrote early works in the subgenre we today recognise as medical sci-fi. And then there was of course H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), an anti-vivisection pamphlet, which served as one of the main influences on Maurice Renard.
Conrad Veidt was a stage actor who turned to film in 1917 and quickly became a favourite of Richard Oswald’s. He acted in many of Oswald’s early horror films, like the groundbreaking Unheimliche Geschichten (1919) and Nachtgestalten (1920) and in a number of other movies, such as Different from the Others (1919), probably the first feature film portraying homosexual love. Even before his international breakthrough with ...Caligari, he had worked with master directors like Paul Leni and F.W. Murnau, and was a big star in Germany. During his career, he also did a whole number of “straight” roles, portraying a dozen historical figures, and he was a staple in costume dramas.
But he kept returning to genre film after his success with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In 1920 he played the Jekyll/Hyde role in F.W. Murnau’s unauthorised version Der Januskopf, sadly lost today, and in 1924 he did one of his most successful films, Paul Leni’s and Henrik Galeen’s hugely influential Waxworks, alongside Werner Krauss, William Dieterle and Emil Jannings. In 1926 Henrik Galeen had the audacity to remake the very first German horror movie (which he had made himself in 1913 along with Paul Wegener), and if there was one actor who could replace Wegener in the title role, then it was naturally Conrad Veidt. In the late twenties he did a short sejour to Hollywood, where his greatest performance was in Paul Leni’s haunting melodrama The Man Who Laughs. His character of Gwynplaine was the primary inspiration for The Joker in the Batman comics, created in 1940. There’s a perpetual dispute over which of the three creators, Bob Kane, Bill Finger or Jerry Robinson, who came up with the idea, but all agree that it was inspired by a photograph of Veidt as Gwynplaine.
Veidt’s career might have taken a very different turn if his friend and frequent collaborator Paul Leni hadn’t died in 1929. Leni was the director originally slated to direct Universal’s first horror film in sound, Dracula (1930), and Leni wanted Veidt to play the title role. As Leni passed away, directing duties were taken over by Tod Browning, who favoured Veidt’s American horror twin Lon Chaney for the Transylvanian vampire. Chaney was otherwise occupied, so Browning turned once more to Veidt. However, Veidt spoke very little English at the time. And while his accent may not have been a problem for the role of Dracula, he would now be working with a director with whom he would have difficulties communicating (as opposed to German Leni), and who also had a reputation as a terrible drunk who was difficult to work with. Veidt respectfully declined, citing his uneasiness for doing a lead role in English. He then returned to Germany, where he, among other things, played Grigori Rasputin, did a sound remake of his success as Gessler in Wilhelm Tell and acted in German version of the science fiction film F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (1933). German star Hans Albers played the lead in the English-language version and Charles Boyer did the French one.
In 1933 Veidt married his third wife, Jewish Ilona “Lily” Prager, whom he had been living with for some time. A vehement Anti-Nazi, Christian Veidt filled out Joseph Goebbel’s mandatory cinema worker’s background check form as “Jewish” just to spite the Nazis. As one of Germany’s biggest stars in outspoken opposition to Nazism, he was a problem for Hitler & Co, who actually hatched a plot to assassinate him. However, Veidt caught wind of the plot in time and fled to Great Britain with his wife. However, the language was still a problem, and he had difficulties finding good roles. After a short stop-over in France, making two films (one with Richard Oswald), he got a call from Hungarian writer-director-producer Alexander Korda, with whom he had worked in Britain, who wanted to take him to Hollywood to star in the megaproduction The Thief of Bagdad (1940), one of the very first Technicolor films, and the first movie to use bluescreen photography.
Hollywood in the early forties couldn’t get enough of German expats to fill their numerous roles for evil Nazi officers, and Veidt became one of the go-to guys, and spent most of his short years in Hollywood sound pictures playing the the characters he had such a loathing for in real life. One exception was a major role in George Cukor’s film noir A Woman’s Face, opposite Joan Crawford. The role he is perhaps best remembered for today is that of Nazi major Strasser in Michael Curtiz’ classic Casablanca (1942), which was to be his second-to-last film. Despite the presence of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Conrad Veidt was the highest-paid actor on the roster. Tragically, Veidt died in 1943, only 50 years old, of a heart attack while playing golf, which must be one of the most undignified ways of leaving this Earth. It’s a pity Veidt didn’t do more science fiction, because I could watch him forever.
A few words should also be said about Veidt’s co-actor in The Hands of Orlac, Alexandra Sorina. Born 1899 in Russia, current-day Belarus, as Alexandra Zwikewitsch, she studied dentistry and fled with all of her family to Poland after the Communist revolution on 1917. Here she opened a dental clinic, before she was spotted by film company UFA, who took her to Germany where she appeared in over a dozen films.
Sorina complements Veidt’s Expressionistic acting style wonderfully, and manages to hold her own against his energetic onslaught. She possesses a strong charisma of her own, and just like Veidt, she is able to convey grandiose emotion without seeming to overact.
Sorina’s acting career started with a bang, but her film output grew sporadic towards the end of the twenties. She only did one sound film, in 1932, before marrying Russian-born on-off film producer Sergei Ozup/Serge/Sergio Otzoup the same year. She then dropped out of acting to care for her family, whom she had taken with her to Berlin. Thanks to her connections in the film business, she was able to get a job translating foreign films for dubbing and subtitling. She got caught off from her husband who tried his luck as a producer in Spain in 1939, shortly before WWII broke out. Two Russians exiled in different countries, they never saw each other again, despite both living well into the seventies.
Little is known of the political leanings of Alexandra Sorina, other than the fact that she, as a Belarusian aristocrat, had fled the Soviet revolution in 1917. However, we do know that Serge Otzoup actively collaborated with the Nazis – be it out of sympathy, necessity or a little of both: in the mid-thirties many Russian exiles probably saw Nazism as a bulwark against communism in Germany. In 1935 Otzoup co-founded a short-lived company in Austria, that specialised in finding cast and crew for Austrian films that were guaranteed “Aryan”, in order for the movies to fulfill the German “all-Aryan” film guidelines (remember those background check forms that Veidt refused to write “Aryan” on?). With the victory of General Franco’s fascists in Spain in 1939, Otzoup left for Madrid in order to set up a German-Spanish film collaboration between the two fascist countries, but the efforts were thwarted by the outbreak of WWII the same year. All in all, Otzoup is only credited as having worked as producer or production manager on a handful of films in his career, and instead became known in Spain as a successful collector and restorer of Orthodox icons, and writer of several books on art.
As for Sorina, left in Berlin with her parents and children, she and her family seems to have been in no immediate danger from the Nazis, even if there is little evidence that they sympathised with the fascist regime. Her daughter Tatiana Otzoup Guliaeff has little to say on the matter in her short biography of her mother, and during the first half of the war the family seems to have been fairly well off in their estate, despite some economic hardships (Guliaeff remembers that her mother had to barter for food with her beloved Persian rugs). However, disaster struck as their home was bombed in 1943. Towards the end of the war Sorina and her family feared that they would get caught by the Soviet troops advancing from the East, and by 1945 found herself in a refugee camp in Kassel. After several years of hard work in the camps – during which Sorina co-founded an in-camp theatre group – the family managed to emigrate to the US, specifically San Fransisco. Here she worked a number of odd jobs to support her family, and passed away in 1973.
The Hands of Orlac is, as mentioned earlier, based on the novel Les Mains d’Orlac, written in 1920 by French science fiction pioneer Maurice Renard. I have yet to read the novel, but as far as I am able to discern, the film seems to remain fairly true to the original, at least more so than later film adaptations.
Maurice Renard’s groundbreaking work in French sci-fi has only started to become recognised in the Anglophone world in the last decade, mainly thanks to a heroic translation effort by Brian Stableford, who released five new translations of his works in 2010. Prior to that, Les Mains d’Orlac was the only one of his novels that had received a proper translation, and thus it remains his best known work outside of France.
If pulp publisher and editor Hugo Gernsback was the person primarily responsible for defining the genre of science fiction in the Anglophone world in the twenties, then Maurice Renard did the same thing in France. But where Gernsback was at best a hack writer himself, Renard is generally considered the foremost sci-fi author during France’s Golden Age of speculative fiction (1880-1940). Like his American counterpart Renard wrote several serious pieces trying to outline what he saw as a completely new genre in literary fiction. While there is no absolute answer to who first coined the term “science fiction”, its origins as a genre-defining term lies with Gernsback, even if Gernsback mostly used the abbreviation “scientifiction”, which he first put to paper in 1916, and tried to re-launch in 1926, without much success. Maurice Renard called the genre “le merveilleux scientifique” or “the marvellous scientific”, and its literary product “le roman merveilleux-scientifique” or “the scientific-marvellous novel”. His first use of the term was probably in 1909, seven years before Gernsback’s “scientifiction”.
It matters little that neither Renard’s nor Gernsback’s preferred terms never achieved popular success, what matters is that both were acutely aware of the fact that writers of the late 19th and early 20th century had been in the process of forging a wholly new literary genre distinct from other forms of speculative or fantastic fiction. Both also felt that some of the vague terms used to describe these works, such as “science romance” or “anticipation novel” were misnomers. Renard pays homage to some of the early pioneers of the genre, such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Jonathan Swift, and sees Edgar Allan Poe as the true originator of the “pure” scientific-marvellous novel. Nevertheless he sees the emergence of the genre as a phenomenon as coinciding with two of the great sci-fi writers of the late 19th century, H.G. Wells and J.-H. Rosny ainé (another French pioneer who’s been sadly neglected in the English-speaking world).
In Renard’s words (translated by Arthur B. Evans): [the scientific-marvellous] “is the contemporary literary genre which is most akin to philosophy – it is philosophy put into fiction, it is logic dramatized. Born of science and reasoning, it attempts to foreground one with the aid of the other. […] We […] search for our novelistic themes either in the unknown or the uncertain. […] We must act exactly like a scientist who seeks to solve a problem: we apply to the unknown or the uncertain the methods of scientific method. […] It’s all about extending science fully into the unknown […] The influence of the scientific-marvelous novel on [our] concept of progress is considerable. Being forcefully convincing by its very rationality, it brutally unveils for us all that the unknown and the uncertain perhaps hold in store for us. […] It opens up for us an immeasurable space outside of our immediate sense of well-being. […] It fragments our habitual lifestyle and transports us to other points of view outside of ourselves. In so doing, the scientific-marvelous novel exerts a very valuable influence on our thought processes. In imagining what might or can happen, we better conceive what is happening; in visualizing what can be […] we see more clearly what is.”
Putting his money where his mouth was, Renard not only speculated theoretically, but wrote volumes of sci-fi himself, even if much of his work is an eclectic mix of genres, ranging from detective stories to pure SF to gothic horror to satirical comedy, to fantasy and adventure and even romantic novels. Renard wrote close to twenty novels and over one hundred short stories and novellas, most of which appeared in serialised form, so called “feuilletones”, in French pulp magazines.
His first SF novel Le docteur Lerne, sous-dieu was published in 1909 – a sexually evocative transplant tale filled with dark comedy about a young man who visits his uncle, a mad scientist who experiments with transplants between animals and plants, animals and humans and even humans and machines. At one point the young protagonist has his brain transplanted in a bull, and vice-versa. Evans writes: “Part of the originality of the tale, however, is not in the sometimes outlandish plot sequences, but in the manner in which they are told. The originality of this novel is two-fold: in its sf eroticism, and in how it portrays the mind-body split through narrative point of view. One example: Nicolas is forced to have his brain exchanged with that of a bull. Following the surgery, the young man must now struggle to acclimate himself to the alien: not only to his new bovine body and instincts, but also to seeing his old self as the “other” – especially when the latter makes overtly sexual advances toward “his” mistress. Another example: later in the text, after receiving his own brain back again, the narrator is in the throes of a steamy sexual interlude with his aforementioned mistress when he suddenly feels the presence of another person’s identity intruding into his mind and taking over his body: it is Dr. Lerne who, gazing through a peephole nearby, decides to become a more-than-first-hand observer to the proceedings.”
The novel was translated to English in 1923 as New Bodies for Old, and the sleeve notes promised such risqué elements (which were way ahead of their time), but in fact the publisher had edited all of them out of the book, leaving the outlandish plot without its psychological chore – which turned it into an occasionally funny, but rather meaningless exercise in pulp. Such was the fate with most of the few works of Renard’s that were translated, and in light of this it is no wonder that the Anglophone world has largely ignored the author. Thankfully this groundbreaking novel is one of those translated by Stableford in 2010.
However, while his works may not be familiar, his themes are certainly that, and many of them have found their way, sort of through the back door, into mainstream science fiction – partly through European pulp writers who borrowed his themes, partly through the few American and English writers, filmmakers and TV writers who either read French or read his translated works and saw the potential of the themes behind the bad translations.
The theme which Renard may most universally lay claim to is the transplant theme, one which he returned to in The Hands of Orlac in 1920, and several other times. Not only has The Hands of Orlac been adapted for the screen several times, but the theme of the “haunted body part” is one that has been subsequently used in numerous fantasy, horror, sci-fi and adventure films. Pretty much every time you see a severed hand crawling across the floor, it’s a nod to Maurice Renard.
Renard’s third important book Le Peril Bleu (The Blue Peril) was published in 1910, and is remarkable for being one of the very first novels to describe an non-anthropomorphic alien race. The book’s aliens consist of incorporeal beings spread out like a film over the Earth’s atmosphere, who “fish” humans from the deep “sea” of gas that surrounds the planet in order to study them. The book deals the imagining of life-forms vastly different than hours, and the difficulties we would have communicating with them – even if they were completely benign. Whether the authors were aware of it or not, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life, upon which the 2016 film Arrival was based, were deeply indebted to Le Peril Bleu. Most certainly Arrival director Denis Villeneuve would (or at least should) have been aware of it.
Renard continued to explore technological, medical and futuristic themes in his works, such as “electroscopic eye transplants”, mechanical eyes which gives the wearer artificial, super-human senses, human cloning, cyborgs, invisibility, incorporealism, time paradoxes, lost worlds, miniaturisation of humans, anti-gravity, radio controlled machines, galvanism, etc. Much of his work was directly inspired by, and at the same time a discussion with and a critique of, one of his great idols H.G. Wells. Doctor Lerne was dedicated to Wells, and inspired by his pamphlet The Island of Dr. Moreau, and in two different, more humourist works Renard poked holes in the science of Wells’ famous book The Invisible Man. It was known even when Wells wrote his book that a truly invisible man would be blind, as his eyes wouldn’t function without opaque parts. In one of Renard’s stories an inventor tries to make himself invisible, but merely manages to turn himself temporarily blind. However, since he knows this is a side-effect of invisibility, he walks around through the entire book believing that he is invisible, to the great amusement of those around him.
One of the criticisms directed towards Renard is that his stories often tend to lean toward pulpy sensationalism and that in some instances a splendid book sort of deteriorates into more standard romance or detective fair toward the end. This is true both for The Hands of Orlac and many of his other works, and partly has to do with the fact that many of them were written in serialised format, often on a tight schedule, and readers tended to want rather neatly wrapped up endings. Other times he was simply compelled to write “popular stories” in order to get by economically.
As mentioned, this is also one of the main problems with the film The Hands of Orlac. But this blemish isn’t enough to nudge the film off its pedestal as one of my favourite horror films of all time.
I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to Arthur B. Evans for phenomenal write-up on Maurice Renard, Tatiana Otsoup-Gulieva for the information on her mother Alexandra Sorina, as well as my countryman Johan Förnäs at the Finnish Public Broadcaster YLE for a great piece on Robert Wiene.
The Hands of Orlac (Orlacs Hände). 1924, Austria/Germany. Directed by Robert Wiene. Written by Louis Nerz. Based on a novel by Maurice Renard. Starring: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Carmen Cartellieri, Fritz Kortner, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas, Hans Homma. New music by Henning Lohner, Paul Mercer, et. al. Cinematography: Hans Androschin, Günther Krampf. Art direction: Stefan Wessely, Hans Rouc. Production manager: Karl Ehrlich. Produced for Berolina Films & Pan Films.