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Franz Werfel (1890-1945)


Czech-born poet, playwright, and novelist, whose central themes were religious faith, heroism, and human brotherhood. Franz Werfel's best-known works include The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933), a classic historical novel that portrays Armenian resistance to the Turks, and The Song of Bernadette (1941). The latter book had its start when Werfel, a Jew escaping the Nazis, found solace in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes, where St. Bernadette had had visions of the Virgin. Werfel made a promise to "sing the song" of the saint if he ever reached the United States. He died in California in 1945.

Das Bleibende
Solang noch der Tatrawind leicht
slowakische Blumen bestreicht,
so lang wirken Mädchen sie ein
in trauliche Buntstickerei'n.
Solang noch im bayrischen Wald
die Axt im Morgengraun hallt,
so lang auch der Einsame sitzt,
der Gott und die Heiligen schnitzt.
Solang auf ligurischer Fahrt
das Meer seine Fischer gewahrt,
so lang wird am Strand es schaun
die spitzenklöppelnden Fraun.
Ihr Völker der Erde, mich rührt
das Bleibende, das ihr vollführt.
Ich selbst, ohne Volk, ohne Land,
stütz' nun meine Stirn in die Hand.

Franz Werfel was born in Prague, Bohemia (now Czech), the son of a wealthy glove merchant. While still a gymnasium student, he met Franz Kafka and Max Brod – like Kafka, Werfel was a German-speaking Jew and never forgot his Jewish background. In 1909, he was employed for a short time by a shipping firm. After studies in Leipzig and Hamburg, he worked at a publishing company from 1911 to 1914. With Walter Hasenclever and Kurt Pinthus he edited the expressionist series Der Jüngste Tag. Werfel's first verse collection, Der Weltfreund (1911), was an euphoric celebration of human brotherhood. "My only wish is to be related to you, O Man!" he wrote in a poem.

Werfel's poem became a landmark in the history of expressionism. On the eve of World War I he was active in a pacifist society, which he organized together with Martin Buber, Gustav Landauer, and Max Scheler. In 1916, Werfel adapted for stage Euripides's The Trojan Women, a plea for peace and love in time, when poets, like Rupert Brooke in England, wrote about "glamorous death. From 1915 to 1917, Werfel served in the Austrian army on the Russian front. He was transferred to the war press bureau in Vienna, but his outspoken pacifism led to a charge of treason. Werfel's poems about the war appeared in 1919 under the title Der Gerichtstag (The Day of Judgment) and revealed his despair of mankind. In Vienna, Franz Blei introduced him to Alma Mahler-Gropius, the daughter of the landscape painter Emil Schildler and the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. At that time she was married to the architect Walter Gropius. Since 1917 they were lovers and after divorce she went to live with Werfel. She had in 1918 a son by Werfel, christened Martin Carl Johannes, who died in June 1919. Werfel blaimed himlself for the death. In order to marry Alma in 1929, Werfel resigned from the Jewish community. Alma's daughter Manon Gropius grew up with the Werfels. She died from polio in 1933.

From the 1920s Werfel devoted himself entirely to writing. His plays were especially popular in England and in the United States. Most of his plays were produced by Max Reinhardt. Werfel's verse trilogy Der  Spiegelmensch (1921) was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust and Henrik Ibsen's Per Gynt. The story dealt with man's temptation to self-deification, his fall and salvation. Influenced by Expressionism in German drama, Werfel wrote The Goat Song (1921), based on the idea of the unredeemed animal in man. The story was set in a fictional Slavic country in the eighteenth century. Gospodar Stevan Milic has two sons, Mirko, and another, half man and half beast, whom he decides to kill, but the creature escapes. Peasants start a rebellion and enshrine it. Juvan, the leader of the rebellion is hanged and Stanja, Mirko's fiancée, announces that she carries the creature's child.

Juarez und Maximilian (1924) was a drama about the Hapsburg emperor of Mexico, Archeduce Maximilian. He has idealistic dreams, but Juárez, the elected President, who never appears onstage, is unyielding opponent. Maximilian tries to leave Mexico but is stopped by Porfirion Díaz. I n Querétaro Maximilian is betrayed. Before his execution, he affirms Juárez as the true leader of the future. The play gained a great success. In the Theatre Guild production in New York, 1926, Edward G. Robinson played Porfirion Diaz.

Werfel's major novels dealt with music, history, and Catholic faith, although he never converted. Music was for him a lifelong passion, as it was for Alma, a talented musician and composer, who had given up her career for Mahler. In the essay 'Der Snobismus als geistige Weltmact' (1928) Werfel argued that society has lost its old beliefs, and the snob is the embodiment of this sad state of affairs. Paulus unter den Juden (1926) was set in the period when Christianity broke away from Judaism.  Verdi: Roman der Oper (1924) was about the famous Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and dealt with artist's crisis when his creative powers fail. Die Geschwister von Neapel (1931) was a historical story. A trip in 1929 to the Middle East inspired Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (1933, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh). Werfel saw in a mat factory starving refugees, and became acquainted with their fate. He started to write the book in July 1932, finishing it in March 1933. On his lecture tour in November 1932, he read parts of the work. The story depicted the persecution of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915. Werfel warned prophetically about the consequences of the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. However, in 1933 signed the declaration of loyalty issued by the President of the Prussian Academy of Arts, and he applied for membership in Joseph Goebbel's Reich Organization of German Authors. His application was rejected, because members had to be "of German blood".

In Barbara oder die Frömmigkeit (1929, The Pure in Heart) Welfel examined his central theme: the futility of political or social change because of humanity's flawed nature and the metaphysical human devotion to God. He had already rejected political activism in an essay, 'Die christliche Sendung' (1918), which he connected with power, an evil force basically in Werfel's view. Moreover, Alma who was a conservative, had never tolerated her husband's revolutionary ideas. Werfel believed that individual spiritual values will ultimately triumph. The theme was further elaborated in Das Lied von Bernadette (1941, The Song of Bernadette). In the preface Werfel stated, that his intention is to "magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of mankind." The book was made into a successful Hollywood film in 1943 and won three Oscars. Jennifer Jones played Bernadette, a peasant girl in the 1800s, who has a vision of the Virgin Mary at what becomes the shrine of Lourdes.

Werfel lived in Austria until 1938. With Alma he traveled to the United States in 1935, to attend the rehearsals of Der Weg der Verheißung (1935), under the direction of Max Reinhardt at the Manhattan Opera House in New York. The music for the play, which presented the Old Testament history of the Jewish people in a modern context, was composed by Kurt Weil. When the German army invaded Austria, Werfel happened to be in Italy, and he was forced into exile. In Paris the author suffered his first heart attack. Doctors wrongly diagnosed it as nicotine poisoning. Werfel's most important novel from this period was the semi-autobiographical Cella oder Die Überwinder, which was left unfinished and was not published until 1954. After travelling from France to Spain, Werfel settled in the United States. In December 1940, the Werfels moved to Los Angeles, where they first lived at 6900 Los Tilos Road in Hollywood and later at 610 North Bedford in Beverly Hills. Embezzled Heaven (1940), an exile novel, became a bestseller and was selected by the Book-of-the Month Club. Jacobowsky und der Oberst (1944) was Werfel's last major play. He wrote it after telling the story of a Jewish banker's flight from the Nazis at a dinner party. It is a tragicomedy and Werfel was critized for making the Nazi terror in France the basis for a comedy. Against all odds, the underdog Jacobowsky triumphs; he never gives up.

Franz Werfel died in Beverly Hills, California, on August 26, 1945, in the middle of his work, correcting galley proof of his last book of verse. Posthumously published Stern der Ungeborenen (1946, The Star of the Unborn) was a visionary science-fiction novel, in which Werfel's suspicion of 'civilization' also reflected his depressed experiences in exile in California. The narrator's mysteriously resurrected self is summoned into the distant future. There the narrator (named Franz Werfel) is guided by a mentor and he observes the ultimate spiritual and technological development of the humankind. However, the end of suffering has not brought about a new golden age, but has cut off the chance to man's redemption.

For further reading: Franz Werfel and the Critics by J.E. Michaelis (1994); Understanding Franz Werfel by Hans Wagener (1993); Franz Werfel im Exil, ed. by W. Nehring and H. Wagener (1992); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, vol. 5, ed. by Stanley Hochman (1984); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Protest-Form-Tradtion: Essays on German Exile Literature, ed. by J.P. Strelka et al (1979); Franz Werfel by L.B. Foltin (1972); Franz Werfel by L. Zahn (1966); Franz Werfel, 1890-1945, ed. by L. B. Foltin (1961); Franz Werfel by E. Keller (1958); Mythological and Supernatural Elements in Four Early Plays of Franz Werfel by F.S. Lambasa (1954); Franz Werfel: Wort und Antwort by A. von Puttkammer (1952); Franz Werfel: 1890-1945, ed. by L.B. Foltin (1961); Franz Werfel: Versuch einer Zeitspiegelung by R. Specht (1926); Franz Werfel by H. Berendt (1920) - Note: Werfel appeared in Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) as Feuermaul, darling of the salons and the representantive of the expressionist belief in the brotherly love. - Suom.: Werfelilta on suomennettu myös runoja valikoimassa Kaunis Saksa (1924), novelleja valikoimassa Aikamme parhaita rakauskertomuksia (1965).

Selected works:

  • Der Weltfreund, 1911
  • Der Besuch aus dem Elysium, 1912 (play)
  • Die Versuchung, 1913 (play)
  • Wir sind, 1913
  • Einander - Oden, Lieder, Gestalten, 1915
  • Die Troerinnen des Euripides, 1915 (adaptation of Euripides' play The Trojan Women)
  • Gesänge aus den drei Reichen, 1917
  •  Der Gerichtstag, 1919
  • Die Mittagsgöttin, 1919 (play)
  • Nicht der Mörder, der Ermordete ist schuldig, 1919 (novella)
    - Not the Murderer (tr. 1937)
  • Spielhof, 1920
  • Der Spiegelmensch, 1921 (play)
    - Mirror Man (tr. n.d.)
  • Bocksgesang, 1921 (play)
    - The Goat Song: A Drama in Five Acts (translated by R. Laugner, 1926)
  • Schweiger, 1922 (play)
    - Schweiger (tr. 1926)
  • Arien, 1922
  • Beschwörungen, 1923
  • Juarez und Maximilian, 1924 (play)
    - Juarez and Maximilian; a Dramatic History in Three Phases and Thirteen Pictures (translated by Ruth Langner, 1926)
    - film 1939, Juarez, dir. by William Dieterle, starring Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Brian Aherne, Claude Rains,
  • Verdi: Roman der Oper, 1924
    - Verdi: A Novel of the Opera (translated by Helen Jessiman, 1925)
    - Verdi: oopperan romaani (suom. Kyllikki Hämäläinen, 1949)
  • Paulus unter den Juden, 1926 (play)
    - Paul Among the Jews (translated by Paul P. Levertoff, 1928)
  • Gesammelte Gedichte, 1927
  • Geheimnis eines Menschen, 1927
    - Saverio's Secret (tr. 1937)
  • Der Snobismus eine geistige Weltmacht, 1927
  • Neue Gedichte, 1928
  • Der Abituriententag, 1928
    - The Class Union (translated by W. Chambers, 1929)
    - Luokkakokous (suom. J. Hollo, 1930)
  • Der Tod des Kleinbürgers, 1928 (short story)
    - The Man Who Conquered Death (tr. 1927)
    - Kuoleman voittaja (suom. Anna Leivo, 1928)
  • Barbara oder die Frömmigkeit, 1929
    - The Pure in Heart (tr. 1931)
  • Dramatische Dichtungen, 1929 (Die Troerinnen; Juarez und Maximilian; Paulus unter den Juden)
  • Das Reich Gottes in Böhmen, 1930 (play)
  • Realismus und Innerlichkeit, 1931
  • Kleine Verhältnisse, 1931
    - Poor People (tr. 1937)
  • Die Geschwister von Neapel, 1931
    - The Pascarella Family (translated by D.F. Tait, 1932)
  • Können wir ohne Gottesglauben leben?, 1932
  • Die Kämpfe der Schwachen, 1933
  • Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, 1933
    - The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (translated by Geoffrey Dunlop, 1934)
    - Neljäkymmentä päivää Musa Daghilla 1-3 (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttila, 1935)
    - film 1982, dir. by Sarky Mouradian, screenplay by Alex Hakobian
  • Schlaf und Erwachen: Neue Gedichte, 1935
  • Der Weg der Verheißung, 1935 (play)
    - The Eternal Road (translated by Ludwig Lewisohn, 1936)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1926-1936 (8 vols., edited by A.D. Klarmann)
  • Der veruntreute Himmel, 1937 (repub. as Jeremias)
    - Hearken unto the Voice (translated by Moray Firth [pseud.], 1938) / Embezzled Heaven: A Play in a Prologue and Three Acts (by L. Bush-Fekete and Mary Helen Fay, 1944)
    - Kuulkaa Herran ääntä 1-2 (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttila, 1938)
  • In einer Nacht, 1937 (play)
  • Twilight of a World, 1937 (translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter)
  • Von der reinsten Glückseligkeit des Menschen, 1938
  • Weißenstein, der Weltverbesserer, 1939
  • Der veruntreute Himmel, 1939
    - Embezzled Heaven (translated by Moray Firth [pseud.], 1940)
    -film 1958, Der Veruntreute Himmel, dir. by Ernst Marischka, starring Annie Rosar, Hans Holt, Viktor de Kowa, Vilma Degischer
  • Gedichte aus 30 Jahren, 1939
  • Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift, 1941
    - Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand (translated by James Reidel, 2010)
    - Kirje naisen käsialalla (suom. Oili Suominen, 2004)
  • Das Lied von Bernadette, 1941
    - The Song of Bernadette (translated by Ludwig Lewisohn, 1942) / Franz Werfel's The song of Bernadette: A Play in Three Acts (dramatized from the novel, by Jean and Walter Kerr, 1944)
    - Bernadetten laulu (suom. Kyllikki Sutinen, 1949)
    - film 1943, dir. by Henry King, screenplay by George Seaton, starring Jennifer Jones, William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price - PROLOGUE: "For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible." The film was one of the top five box-office hits of 1943, but Manny Farber in the New Republic (March 6, 1943) gave it a bad review: "The Song of Bernadette is an overwhelmingly careful failure... The script... is uninspired to the point of tedium... It is so cautious that near the end the whole production appears to be turning to stone; when people bend they creak, lifetime associates meet and come together with all of the recognition of ambulating sculptures, and they look at each other with paralyzed faces. It is actually one of the most sick, wracked films I have ever seen."
  • Die wahre Geschichte vom wiederhergestellten Kreuz, 1942
  • Zwischen Gestern und Morgen, 1942
  • Géza de Varsany, 1943
  • Jacobowsky und der Oberst, 1944 (play)
    - Jacobowsky and the Colonel: Comedy of a Tragedy in Three Acts (translated by Gustave O. Arlt, 1944)
    - Jakobovski ja eversti (suom.)
    - films: 1958, Me and the Colonel, dir. by Peter Glenville, starring Danny Kaye, Curd Jürgens, Nicole Maurey, Françoise Rosay; 1987, Plukovnik a Jakobowski
  • Poems by Franz Werfel, 1945 (translated by Edith Abercrombie Snow)
  • Gedichte aus den Jahren 1908-1945, 1945 [Poems from the Years 1908-1945]
  • Zwischen Oben und Unten, 1946
    - Between Heaven and Earth (translated by Maxim Newmark, 1944)
  • Stern der Ungeborenen, 1946
    - The Star of the Unborn (translated by Gustave O. Arlt, 1946)
    - Syntymättömien tähti (suom. Lauri Hirvensalo, 1950)
  • Die arge Legende vom gerissenen Galgenstrick, 1948
  • Cella oder Die Überwinder, 1954
    - Cella, Or, the Survivors (translated by Joachim Neuroschel, 1989)
    - TV film 1977, dir. by Eberhard Itzenplitz, starring Christine Csar
  • Die Dramen, 1959 (2 vols.)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1948-1975 (16 vols.)
  • Lyrische Werk, 1967 (edited by Adolf D. Klarmann)
  • Die stille Revolution: kleine Prosa, 1975 (edited by Traugott Krischke)
  • Gesammelte Werke in Einzelbänden, 1989 (edited by Knut Beck)

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