Foreign Language Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Hands of Orlac

The idea that a possession or even more creepily a body part of a dead person can take over the life of its living owner has appeared in fairy tales and ghost stories for centuries. In cinema, the touchstone story of this sort is Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac, which has been adapted to the screen many times, including in both films I am recommending: The 1924 Austrian and 1935 US version of The Hands of Orlac (The latter is sometimes titled Mad Love).

The story concerns gifted pianist and composer Paul Orlac, whose hands are severely damaged in an accident. He survives his injuries, but the surgeon must replace his hands with those of a recently executed murderer. As Orlac and his devoted lady love Yvonne attempt to put their lives back together, the murders start again, and Orlac begins to suspect that his new hands are driving him to commit horrible crimes.

The 1924 version is a silent film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, who will be familiar as principals of the all-time cinema classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which I recommended here. Like that famous film, the Hands of Orlac is skillfully made in the expressionist style and is anchored by striking visuals and Veidt’s uncanny ability to convey emotion without dialogue. The film was recently restored with a newly composed soundtrack and became deservedly popular on the classic film festival circuit.

The 1935 version is a talkie that changes the story substantially in an effective way. Here, the surgeon is the central character and is driven by his lust for Orlac’s wife rather than any desire to help the composer. This was Peter Lorre’s first American film and he’s magnetic as a villain who is loathsome in some ways and pitiable in others. I like this version even better than the original because of Lorre’s strong performance, director Karl Freund’s visual sensibilities and the tighter pacing.

Here is a short promotional film made for the US release of the 1935 version. It’s more than a traditional trailer because while Lorre was a big star in Germany, Hollywood had to introduce him to American audiences.

Foreign Language Horror/Suspense

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Film buffs are one of the few groups of people who have extremely positive associations with the words “Weimar Republic”. The German film industry had an embarrassment of talent and explosive creativity in the 1920s. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of a number of innovative German movies of the era that profoundly influenced whole swaths of 20th century film worldwide: .

It’s a story within a story, told by a man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) after he sees “his betrothed” walk by in a daze. They have shared an amazing experience he says, and then the film transitions to his bizarre tale of a carnival sideshow that features a fortune-telling somnambulist. The sideshow is operated by the mysterious Dr. Caligari (a magnetic Werner Krauss) who seems to have control over the sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The creepy Cesare blandly informs a carnival patron that he will die at dawn, and the prediction comes true! It’s one of a series of murders that have been terrorizing the countryside. But who is the killer, and what will happen to the fetching damsel in distress (Lil Dagover) whom Francis and his friendly rival Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are trying to woo? Strap yourself in for cinema’s first horror film AND the first film with a twist ending (and what a twist!).

Made by Robert Wiene in 1919 or 1920 (depending on which film guide you believe), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains one of the most visually striking films in history. Expressionist artists Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig and Walter Reimann produced a set design to die for, with light and shadows physically painted onto the walls and floors, twisted furnishings, canted windows and doors, and chiaroscuro galore. It’s a madman’s dreamscape, a physical expression of a warped psychology. Many of the actors move in a stylized way (Caligari recalls a scuttling spider, Cesare a cross between a mod dancer and the Frankenstein monster), further heightening the atmosphere of unreality. And it all would have looked even more mesmerizing at the time because the film was tinted rather than being in pure black and white.

Like the best art of this type, the unreality expresses a greater reality. Every one who has been in some bureaucratic backwater office to complete arcane paperwork under the oversight of an imbecile sees the truth in the design of the town clerk’s office in this movie. The cell at the police station conveys the complete desolation of the wrongly accused. And we have all met leaders of organisations whose personality and outlook are completely captured in the interior of the insane asylum director’s office.