The Hands of Orlac

Amusing anecdote: my wife and I were just settling down to dinner and looking forward to a relaxing evening when lo and behold, the babysitter was at the door. Wait, what? Oh right!

We were going out to spend two hours listening to the symphony try to creep us out of our wits through a 91-year-old, two-hour-long film. Plus intermission.

The Hands of Orlac is a 1924 (silent, black and white) Austrian suspense film. For the first concert of the Intersections Series, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony commissioned and performed a new score for this film by Canadian composer Scott Good.

A modern composer? With a featured soprano? Not atonal caterwauling! Again!

I need not have concerned myself. The soprano (when not signing rather uninspired sections of sacred Latin (kyrie eleison, gloria, agnus dei, that sort of thing)) was breathing in a most sinister fashion, singing into off-putting reverb loops, and emitting odd vocalizations that added quite palpably to the tension on screen.

I could gush for ages over the other featured performer, pianist Gregory Oh. Orlac in the film is a concert pianist, so the scoring made sure to draw the obvious parallels to the pianos on stage. Oh prepared a piano to sound like nothing on this planet, detuning whole registers of it and placing sticks and bottles and other detritus inside to provide sound effects and atmosphere. On the second piano, a topless concert grand, he used… I’m not even sure what to scratch and scrape the strings to make me wonder what else talented musicians could do if they just messed around with their instruments.

Competing with these performers quite ably despite its age was the film itself. I took all of about two film courses in University, but could still recognize some of the truly amazing stuff the crew did. Photographing a searchlight and using it as a wipe to the next scene? Brilliant. Blurring part of the frame to highlight a particular object? Excellent. Using vignetting to show a character’s point-of-view? Wonderful. Film had barely existed, and this is what Austria could produce?

And the title role’s actor was wonderful. Coupled with the score, his “These hands. These damned hands” scene sent shivers down my spine. I only wish they had then immediately cut to the intermission instead of after the following two scenes.

There were other missteps. Some of the score was overwrought and didn’t follow the scene transitions closely enough. The aforementioned Latin was meh. And the film was clearly a product of its time with the leading lady overacting into the camera so hard (to overcome the lack of sound and sophistication) that the audience couldn’t help but laugh despite the tension the film was trying to build.

Regardless, it was truly a singular experience. I can’t wait for the next performance which… whut? Features a punk-rock throat singer?

Is that even a thing?