January 20, 2020

By DAN MACLEOD

There was a murder at the Registry Theatre!  Well not exactly. The Registry Theatre held another night of silent film accompanied by a live orchestra, the VOC Silent Film Harmonic. The film they showed was Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac, starring Conrad Veidt.
In the movie, a pianist, played by Veidt, loses his hands in a train wreck and the doctor replaces them with the hands of a recently executed murderer. Orlac becomes convinced that they’re possessing his mind and will force him to kill someone. This is a story that’s been retold many different ways including in the movie Idle Hand and in the Simpsons’ episode where Homer gets the recently executed Snake’s hair transplanted onto his head.
The film itself is brilliant. I’ve always been a fan of German expressionism in silent films so I thought the acting, the writing and the subtle symbolism that laced everything was just marvellous.
Veidt gave an outstanding performance that rivalled his role as the Nazi, Major Strasser, in Casablanca.
However, I’m not sure what I found more frustrating, the orchestra or the audience. This is the fourth season of this type of event and The Hands of Orlac was the fourth showing that I’ve been to. But I’m no stranger to the budding art that was silent film. I get that since they couldn’t speak, to convey emotions they had to act with very emphatic body language and the more powerful the emotion, the more exaggerated their movements became. This may look a little silly at first but it doesn’t take very long to get used to it. This being said, it’s not hard to recognize that this movie isn’t a comedy.
It’s insulting to giggle at times like when Orlac’s wife is desperately imploring the doctor to do everything possible to save Orlac’s hands. I hate to sound stuck up but the level of persistent immaturity that the audience displayed was downright obnoxious.
If you can’t handle drama or horror without sound then you shouldn’t be going to see these movies in public.
As for the orchestra itself, they were somewhat hit and miss. The first film I saw them play for was Battleship Potemkin, an early communist propaganda film, and their style of dark, abstract jazz worked  well with it.
The next film I saw was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. This was about a mysterious stranger, staying at a hostel, who goes out every night for mysterious reasons during the time of Jack The Ripper.
Again, the brooding, disjointed style of the orchestra’s jazz worked with the movie but I noticed it sounded pretty similar to the first one.
The next was the original version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here I again noticed how similar the music sounded to the first two and in many scenes it was significantly less fitting. Their tone didn’t change accordingly from scene to scene.
Finally it was the same story for the Hands of Orlac. I think that they need to learn a new style that’s discernibly different from their usual one.
Music has great sway on the mood of a silent film and they made every film feel exactly the same despite how different the films are. Sure the orchestra plays quite well but skill means very little when it doesn’t really seem that their hearts are in it.
There may be hope though. In March, the Registry will be playing a Buster Keaton marathon. Keaton, in my opinion, is the absolute best comedian/filmmaker to come out of the silent era and I would hope that the VOC Silent Film Harmonic can see how flat out wrong it would be to play slow, dark, foreboding tones over top of Keaton’s light-hearted antics.

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