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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.
Solang noch der Tatrawind leicht
Solang noch im bayrischen Wald
Solang auf ligurischer Fahrt
Ihr Völker der Erde, mich rührt
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).