Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood Summary

Peter Stephan Jungk


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When Franz Werfel died of a heart attack in California in 1945, he was primarily known as the best-selling author of the novels Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (1933; The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, 1934) and Das Lied von Bernadette (1941; The Song of Bernadette, 1942) and of the hit play, Jacobowsky und der Oberst (1944; Jacobowsky and the Colonel, 1944). He had been hailed by Armenians for faithfully presenting the story of the genocide practiced against them by the Turks and highly praised by Catholics for rendering the story of the miracle at Lourdes with great sensitivity. A Jew by birth, originally a member of an avant-garde movement that disdained popular success, and a refugee from Hitler’s tyranny, Werfel found himself in Hollywood in the last years of his life struggling to write yet another epic work and to come to terms with the Judeo-Christian world. Having suffered two heart attacks, and in mourning over his beloved European civilization, which was crumbling as quickly as his health, Werfel welcomed the new, refreshing climate of Hollywood, embraced American values, and succeeded in appealing to his new American audience in the plays and films made from his books.

Peter Stephan Jungk does an admirable job of treating these different elements and periods of Werfel’s life, immersing himself in Werfel’s childhood and early years in Prague, showing what it was like to be a Jew in a city such as Prague, which frowned not only on Jews but also on the city’s German-speaking minority. Werfel’s strategy from the beginning seems to have been to minimize ethnic conflict. He never renounced his Jewish heritage, though he angered friends such as Max Brod (1884-1968) by his sympathetic embrace of Christianity and his view that Judaism was actually strengthened by the advent of Christ. Although Jungk does not say so explicitly, it is clear that Werfel was moved by the beliefs that also moved masses of people; thus, Christian values could not be ignored and Christian stories must be understood and dramatized.

Werfel was an indifferent student but an avid reader, an adolescent who loved to spend time in the cafes in Prague, to meet new people, and to put as much distance as possible between himself and people such as his father, a glove manufacturer who expected his son to succeed him in running the business. Werfel’s powerful early poetry, the stunning success of his first book, and his engaging personality won many followers and eventually softened his father’s resistance to the idea of a literary career.

The irrepressible Werfel went from one success to another, carefully protecting himself when he could. Looking for ways to avoid military service during World War I, he jumped off a train as it was pulling into a station so that he was dragged several yards. The resulting injury kept him away from the front, and eventually he was transferred to the propaganda section of the Austrian army, where he wrote pieces meant to impress the public with the country’s handling of the war.

At first, Werfel wrote in the avant-garde, German Expressionist mode, which emphasized the subjectivity of the artist. Werfel was praised for the ecstatic, intensely lyrical quality of his verse. The gregarious Werfel, however, keen to embrace as many elements of society as possible and delighting in the large audience that bought his books and came to his readings, gradually was lured to more popular forms. By the end of his career he attacked his early work and his fellow German Expressionists for developing a theory of art that alienated art from the masses and actually helped to create the conditions for Hitler’s rise to power.

Werfel’s outgoing personality is one possible explanation for his eventual abandonment of German Expressionism. Several of his friends also saw the influence of Alma Mahler in his changing literary tastes. That he should be attracted to her is not surprising, for she ran a literary salon, where it was convenient for the ambitious Werfel to meet many artists and to absorb the cultural climate of the times. She was an older woman...

(The entire section is 1685 words.)