Director Robert Wiene, most famous for the Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, delves into more intensely ambiguous physiological territory in this 1924 film. Pianist Paul Orlac loses his hands in a railway accident and a surgeon replaces them with the hands of a recently-executed murderer. Upon learning this, Orlac becomes convinced that he is becoming possessed by the murderer’s spirit and that his actions are no longer his own. Haunted by a mysterious stranger, finding the murderer’s knife in his apartment and unable to play the piano, Orlac’s life and relationship with his wife degenerate. The idea of hands with a will of their own is frightening, but the real horror of the film lies in the uncertainty of where the line between Orlac and his murderous desires lies and whether that line exists at all.
In comparison with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the set designs are much less elaborate, but the distorted, alternately abrupt and dance-like movements of the human body remain. Orlac’s simultaneous revulsion from and fascination by his hands results in a balletic sequence in which the rest of his body is led by his hands, the jerky and flowing motions expressing Orlac’s inner conflict. The camera primarily concentrates on the hands and eyes of the characters to express an atmosphere of fear and horror. The close-ups of the flashing searchlight during the scene of the railway accident recall a staring, distended, seeking human eye, an image that is used to great effect throughout the movie. The terror-widened eyes of the characters staring out of their artfully blackened sockets communicate their heart-stopping horror to the viewer. Hands are repeatedly shown white and contorted against black clothes or a black backdrop, their convulsive, involuntary movements eloquently expressing heightened emotion or loss of control. Despite the mandatory feinting leading lady and sneering villain, The Hands of Orlac masterfully and convincingly uses both camera maneuvers and human movement to show the fear of and revulsion from the self, a tension that predominates the entire movie.