Friday, September 16, 2011

Juxtaposition Blogathon: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hands of Orlac

This week is the Juxtaposition Blogathon over at Pussy Goes Grrr. I will be discussing the silent films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Hands of Orlac (1924). Both of these German films were directed by Robert Wiene and star Conrad Veidt. This post will serve as my film topic post for the week.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
is very well known so I'll try to keep it brief before getting to
The Hands of Orlac and comparing the two films. Caligari is known for being one of the first films to feature a framing story as well as a twist ending. However, I have read that both the framing story and twist ending were not in the original script and it was changed because the film could be read as a critique of German politics at the time. I won't give spoilers, but I do think the framing story and ending hammer home the themes of the film such as dreams vs. reality, sanity vs. insanity, control (of others and being controlled), and obsession. The ending is still up to some interpretation thanks to the cryptic last line made by the doctor. Caligari is best known for its expressionist sets. The set design is still pretty fresh and fascinating to watch since we don't see sets and art design like this much anymore, with the main exception being Tim Burton movies.
I saw the TCM version of Caligari which uses music by Timothy Brock. The score was great and fit perfectly with film.


The Hands of Orlac is about a concert pianist named Paul Orlac who loses his hands in a train accident. However, Paul receives replacement hands from a convicted murder after an experimental surgery. In this sense Orlac could be considered the first body horror film. Paul now has to deal with the loss of his hands, which are directly tied to his identity as a pianist. Paul also has the guilt of now having the hands of a murderer, which causes him to lose his ability to be a master pianist. The film features the motif of hands, even before the accident, such as the love letter Paul writes to his wife where he says he can't wait to touch her hair and feel her body with his hands. There were some great scenes such as the knife hidden inside piano (combining the tool of a pianist with the tool of a murderer). We also see Paul discovering his wedding ring no longer fits his new hand and that his hand writing is now different, furthering his perceived loss of identity.


The TCM version uses music by Paul Mercer. The unsettling score fit the film well although it dragged at times. While I really liked Orlac, its pacing was a little too slow and the film was longer than needed to be since the story could have been told in less than 110 minutes.
Orlac has a twist ending which I didn't see coming, but tied together all the loose ends. I still would have liked to have known why Mr. Orlac hated his son Paul, although to be fair that was not the main part of the story.

Juxtaposition time:
Both Caligari and Orlac are silent horror films that share the same director (Robert Weine) and actor Conrad Veidt. Another similarity is that both films have been re-made at least three times each. Caligari was re-made as recently as 2005 as a talking version that made use of a green screen to merge the original backgrounds into the new movie. Orlac was first re-made in 1935 as Mad Love starring Peter Lorre.
Both of these films have twist endings. While Orlac does a better job of wrapping things up, I like how Caligari is a bit more mysterious with its ending.
Perhaps the reason for this is that Caligari runs a sleek 71 minutes while Orlac is over 40 minutes longer. However we do get to see a lot more of Veidt in Orlac than in Caligari and while he was great in both he gets to shine as the lead in Orlac.


Caligari is much more well known today than Orlac. Although it is impossible to say why, I think it is because of Caligari's expressionistic sets and more fantastical tone. Orlac is darker than Caligari and even though they are both horror films its more grim and depressing. Orlac is not just darker in tone, but literally as the films plays with shadows and light to set the mood. Caligari makes frequent use of fade ins/outs which Orlac uses sparingly. While both are generally said to be German films, I do want to point out that Orlac was actually an Austrian-German production as it was filmed in Austria. Caligari is in public domain in the US and can be found all over the internet, but there are also several DVD versions. Orlac is also available on DVD by Kino.


The backgrounds and set design for Orlac are dreary and gothic as opposed to the more unrealistic and whimsical sets in Caligari. This brings me to two other points. Even though both films are considered to be from the horror genre, Orlac is more of a dark thriller than straight up horror. Orlac
is also usually said to be an Expressionist film. However, the dream sequence where Paul is haunted by the (now dead) murderer is really the only scene that could be considered expressionistic. Everything else is pretty realistic as we have city streets, trains, cars, and hospitals. While I won't get into the debate as to what films can be considered expressionist, and even if it was an actual movement in film, I do think that Orlac often gets put into this category simply because it shares Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt from Caligari and is a German silent horror film from this era. Below is a picture of German director Robert Wiene.

Thanks for reading and please check out the other entries in the Juxtaposition blogthon! My next post will be the weekly wrap-up on Sunday. See you then!


  1. Wonderful review and comparison! I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Caligari. I've never seen Orlac and would really like to now!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks Megan! If you ever get the chance to see Orlac let me know what you think.

  3. Great post! I loved the sets and mood of CALIGARI but I haven't seen anything else by Robert Wiene. ORLAC sounds really interesting, I'll definitely check it out!

  4. Thanks for the comment Alex! I'm the only person I know of who has seen Orlac so if you ever get around to watching it let me know what you think.