Arguably no country did more to shape the face of early horror movies than Germany, but while its cinema's primary contributions to the genre lie in its early years, the story of German horror movies extends all the way up to the present day.
The early 20th century artistic movement known as German Expressionism, which influenced music, theater, painting, sculpture and architecture, was perhaps most successfully realized in the medium of film. Since the movement sought to reflect emotion over realism, many Expressionist movies had horror themes whose fantastic storylines invoked strong emotional responses and granted wide artistic freedom. Also feeding into the horror elements was a dark introspection brought about by Germany's involvement in World War I.
The first Expressionist film might be 1913's The Student of Prague, a Faustian tale in which a poor student takes money from a devilish sorcerer in exchange for his reflection. Although the movie overall lacks some of the extravagance and surrealism of later German horror films, its plot provided for the sort of visual effects and experimentation that characterized Expressionism, as star Paul Wegener played both the titular student and his reflection, which takes on a murderous life of its own. Wegener would stick with the horror genre for his now-lost 1915 film The Golem, based on the Jewish legend of a clay monster brought to life as a servant that veers out of control. Also during this time were groundbreaking films like 1916's Nachte des Grauens (Night of Horror), the first German vampire movie, and a six-part serial entitled Homunculus (1916) featuring the Frankenstein-like plot of a man manufactured in a lab who turns violent when he recognizes his inability to love.
It wasn't until the 1920s, though, that German horror -- and German Expressionism -- hit its creative stride. Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was a landmark film that has become the epitome of the Expressionist movement, with its dreamlike sequences and distorted set design with painted buildings and landscapes (including painted-on light and shadow) that resemble abstract art. Wiene's lesser-known Genuine (1920) had sets designed by Expressionist painter César Klein, using the same artistic methods as Caligari, while Wiene's The Hands of Orlac (1924) used highly stylized direction and dreamy sequences to tell the story of a pianist who's driven insane when he receives hand transplants from an executed murderer.
The same year as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Paul Wegener returned to the Golem character with the prequel The Golem: or How He Came into the World , which delves into the origin of the monster as a protector of persecuted Jews. The portrayal of the German Jews as oppressed outsiders eerily foretold the Holocaust to come, although the depiction of a rabbi's mystical "black magic" could be seen as actually contributing to their status as outsiders.
During the '20s, a stable of German actors, writers and directors pushed Expressionism to international acclaim. Fritz Lang was the most famous, and although his works weren't as readily identifiable as horror as other films of the era, his use of supernatural elements, dark storylines and artistic sets generated the same sort of emotional response. Destiny (1921), for instance, revolves around the character of Death, while Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) features a murderer haunted by ghosts, and Metropolis (1927) continued the "manufactured man" theme of Homunculus and The Golem with the story of a robot built in a futuristic society.
Also highly acclaimed was director F.W. Murnau, whose Nosferatu (1922) used a myriad of effects -- sped-up film, negatives, shadows, transparencies, montages -- to tell an unauthorized version of Dracula. Murnau was no stranger to horror and suspense, having helmed a 1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, entitled The Head of Janus, and the gothic thriller The Haunted Castle (1921) -- the former containing what some believe to be the first instance of a moving camera in cinematic history, an illustration of his inventive filmmaking style. Murnau would later deliver a tour-de-force of special effects in his rendition of the classic tale Faust (1926), an epic full of extravagant set pieces with hundreds of actors and miniatures in the larger-than-life portrayal of God versus Satan.
Directors like Paul Leni, Henrik Galeen and Georg Wilhelm Pabst also made their mark. Leni's Waxworks (1924) featured exaggerated sets and colored filters in a "startling" collection of stories. After emigrating to the United States, he continued to startle with the stylish murder mystery The Cat and the Canary (1927) -- flush with layered imagery, transparencies, funhouse mirrors and even animated title cards -- and The Man Who Laughs (1928), a historical drama whose title character's shocking visage inspired the design of the Batman villain The Joker. (Its star, Conrad Veidt, was perhaps the most iconic actor of the era, having also starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Hands of Orlac, Waxworks, The Student of Prague.)
Galeen, meanwhile, not only wrote Golem, Nosferatu and Waxworks, but he also directed a remake of The Student of Prague in 1926 and another "manufactured man" film, Alraune (in which a woman is created by a scientist who inseminated a prostitute with the semen of a hanged criminal), in 1928. Pabst was not known for his genre efforts, but he did contribute the fantastic Secrets of a Soul (1925), an ambitious attempt to visualize the psychoanalytical landscape laid by Sigmund Freud, creating nightmarish imagery that supposedly reflected unconscious thoughts.