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 Der Weltfreund (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; The Pascarella 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 on Franz Werfel
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 Biography 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.