Werfel, Franz

views updated May 29 2018


WERFEL, FRANZ (1890–1945), Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet. The son of a prosperous Prague manufacturer, Werfel was a friend of Max *Brod and Franz *Kafka. He rejected the business career his father chose for him, and echoes of their disagreement are apparent in the story, "Nicht der Moerder, der Ermordete ist schuldig" (1920). While working as a publisher's reader in Leipzig (1911–14), Werfel attended the university there. His earliest verse collections, Der Weltfreund (1911), Wir sind (1913) and Einander (1915), substituted religious intoxication for the skepticism and sophistry to which his Austrian contemporaries were largely addicted. In his Euripides: Die Troerinnen (1915), an expressionist adaptation of the classical tragedy, war is seen through the eyes of the conquered and enslaved. Three years in the Austrian army on the Russian front (1915–17) confirmed Werfel in his pacifism, and the war poems of Der Gerichtstag (1919) voiced his longing for the rejuvenation of a blood-drenched world through love and universal brotherhood. After the war Werfel became a freelance writer in Vienna and Berlin. In Beschwoerungen (1923) he ecstatically called for a new, Dionysian comradeship with all creation – man, beast, and stone. Werfel's marriage in 1918 to Alma (Schindler) Mahler, the daughter of a famous Austrian painter and widow of the composer Gustav *Mahler, established him in Viennese society. Turning to the theater, he triumphed with the trilogy Spiegelmensch (1920) and his drama Bocksgesang (1921), but had less success with Juarez und Maxmilian (1924), a play about the ill-fated Hapsburg emperor of Mexico, and Paulus unter den Juden (1926; Paul among the Jews, 1928). In Der Weg der Verheissung (1935; The Eternal Road, 1937), a biblical play set to synagogal music by Kurt *Weill and staged in New York by Max *Reinhardt, Werfel revealed his spiritual homelessness and the tragic ambiguity of his religious position. When he abandoned expressionism for historical themes, Werfel portrayed not the lords and victors, but rather the lowly and defeated. His epic novel Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (1933; The Forty Days, 1934) depicted the hopeless struggle of the Armenians against the Turkish hordes. Werfel never actually embraced Christianity, although his essay, Die christliche Sendung (1917) was a step in that direction. Toward the end of his life he reassessed his position as a Jew in Zwischen Oben und Unten (1946), where he declared that God would one day settle the reckoning in Israel's favor. He also wrote: "Religion is the everlasting dialogue between humanity and God. Art is its soliloquy."

In 1938, Werfel fled to France. When the German army invaded France in 1940, he fled once more and managed to reach the United States. He spent his last years in California, where he completed Das Lied von Bernadette (1941), an account of the visionary of Lourdes. This became famous in the English-speaking world as The Song of Bernadette (1942) and was later made into a motion picture. Jacobowsky und der Oberst (1944; Jacobowsky and the Colonel) was a tragicomedy about the flight of a Polish aristocrat and a resourceful little Jew before the German advance into France. During his exile in France, from 1938 to 1940, Werfel wrote a novel depicting the life of the Jews in Burgenland and their sufferings after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. The manuscript was hidden for years and was first published posthumously in 1954, under the title Cella und die Ueberwinder (Frankfurt; republished in East Germany, 1970). The book is one of the most powerful literary expressions of the Holocaust and represents an entirely new aspect of Werfel's creative work. Other novels by Werfel were Verdi. Roman der Oper (1924; Verdi: A Novel of the Opera, 1925), which promoted a Verdi revival in Germany; Der veruntreute Himmel (1939); and Stern der Ungeborenen (1946; Star of the Unborn, 1946). Gedichte aus den Jahren 19081945, a collection of Werfel's best poems, was published in 1946.

In the postwar years there was an increasing interest in Werfel both in West and East Germany, and his works continue to appear in English as well. Among the doctoral theses on him, mention should be made of D. Kuhlenkamp's Werfels spaete Romane (1971), which contains an extensive bibliography.


R. Specht, Franz Werfel (1926); L. Zahn, Franz Werfel (1966), incl. bibl.; W. Braselmann, Franz Werfel (1960), incl. bibl.; L.B. Foltin (ed.), Franz Werfel 18901945 (Eng., 1961), incl. bibl.; A. Werfel, And the Bridge is Love (1958); R. Kayser, in: G. Krojanker,Juden in der deutschen Literatur (1926), 17–26; W. Haas, Gestalten (1962), 228–36. add. bibliography: P.S. Jungk, Franz Werfel, A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood (1991); L. Huber, Franz Werfel: An Austrian Writer Reassessed (1992); J.T. Michaels, Franz Werfel and His Critics (1994).

[Sol Liptzin /

Yehouda Marton]

Franz Werfel

views updated May 11 2018

Franz Werfel

The Austrian poet, novelist, and playwright Franz Werfel (1890-1945) was a leading representative of the expressionist movement in German literature.

Franz Werfel was born on Sept. 10, 1890, in Prague, the son of a Jewish businessman. He studied at the universities of Prague, Leipzig, and Hamburg and then worked (1912-1914) as a reader for a publishing house. After service in World War I (1915-1917) he lived and worked as a professional writer.

Werfel's first achievement was a play, Besuch aus dem Elysium (1909), which was followed by Die Troerinnen (1915), an expressionistic reworking of Euripides's The Trojan Women. However, his reputation was made by his lyric poetry, which he published in such collections as DerWeltfreund (1911) and Wir Sind (1913). His lyric poetry is distinctive and of considerable quality; like his plays, it is passionate, often ecstatic and rhapsodic, but equally often inclined toward the abstruse and the ratiocinative; tightly knit and full of rhetorical figures, it suffers from a certain lack of color and tactile quality.

A strong vein of religious feeling runs through Werfel's poems. In his earlier work this ardor is less overtly religious than philanthropic and humanitarian. The struggle to overcome selfishness is the theme of his trilogy of dramas in verse, Spiegelmensch (1920), a work that fluctuates between the profound and the trivial, the pithy and the diffuse. The element of social criticism in Werfel's work, often pungent, is well exemplified by his novel Der Abituriententag (1928), which deals with the problem of sadism in a school. His novellas, such as Nicht der Mörder, der Ermordete ist schuldig (1920) and Der Tod des Kleinbürgers (1926), reveal their author as a gifted narrator, a scholar of psychoanalytic lore, a shrewd psychologist, and the possessor of an acerbic and cynical wit.

In his later career the novel became Werfel's primary field of endeavor, and he developed for the most part a conventional but sophisticated realism. Verdi (1924), one of his most interesting and evocative novels, attacked the cult of the musical genius established in the German mind by the example of Richard Wagner. In Barbara, oder die Frömmigkeit (1929) Werfel combined an impressive portrayal of postwar Viennese life with the development of a moral theme. Die Geschwister von Neapel (1931; ThePascarella Family) studied the effects of fascism upon a small-time Italian banker, a pillar of austerity and morality.

Werfel fled from Nazi-occupied Austria to France and after the fall of France to the United States. Das Lied von Bernadette (1941; The Song of Bernadette) was written to fulfill a vow he had made when he found temporary refuge in Lourdes. The novel is a fictionalized history of the life and experiences of Bernadette Soubirous, and his choice of theme enabled him to illuminate that essential supremacy of the spiritual over the material that his writings constantly sought to assert. Werfel's posthumously published novel, Stern der Ungeborenen (1946), is a fantastic, futuristic vision of a world in which the intellect succumbs to the profusion and vitality of instinctive life. He died on Aug. 26, 1945, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Further Reading

Biographical material may be gleaned from Alma M. Werfel, And the Bridge Is Love (1958). The only booklength literary study of Werfel in English is Gore B. Foltin, ed., Franz Werfel, 1890-1945 (1961). Werfel's dramatic work is discussed in Hugh F. Garten, Modern German Drama (1959). For material on the expressionist background see Richard Samuel and R. Hinton Thomas, Expressionism in German Life, Literature and the Theatre, 1910-1924 (1939), and Walter H. Sokel, The Writer In Extremis: Expressionism in Twentieth-century German Literature (1939).

Additional Sources

Giroud, Francoise, Alma Mahler, or, The art of being loved, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Jungk, Peter Stephan, Franz Werfel: a life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Steiman, Lionel B. (Lionel Bradley), Franz Werfel, the faith of an exile: from Prague to Beverly Hills, Waterloo, Ont., Canada: W. Laurier University Press; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Distributed in the U.S.A. by Humanities Press, 1985. □

Werfel, Franz

views updated May 29 2018

Werfel, Franz (1890–1945) Austrian dramatist, novelist, and poet. His religious, historical, and modernist dramas include The Trojan Women (1915), Paulus Among the Jews (1926), and Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1943). The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933), Embezzled Heaven (1939), The Song of Bernadette (1941) and Star of the Unborn (1946) are among Werfel's most famous novels. His popular expressionist poetry, found in The Friend of the World (1911) and Each Other (1915), expressed his love for mankind.