Although it is impossible to label the entire work of Franz Werfel with the name of one conventional literary movement, his early work (before 1924) clearly shows all the characteristics of expressionism. The style of the work of his middle period (1925-1938) is similar to that of other neorealistic writers of the time. His novels written during his exile show an increased interest in strictly Christian-Catholic themes, similar to the work of Catholic authors such as Stefan Andres, Gertrud von Le Fort, and Elisabeth Langgässer. In his late work Star of the Unborn, the mythic element becomes stronger, paralleling other works of the time, such as Thomas Mann’s trilogy Joseph and His Brothers (1933-1943) or Hermann Hesse’s utopian Magister Ludi (1943; also known as The Glass Bead Game).
A number of themes characterize Werfel’s work in particular and, in combination, set it apart from the works of his contemporaries. The father-son conflict, typical of the expressionist period, not only is the hallmark of the work of the early Werfel but also permeates even some of the works of his middle period, such as The Pure in Heart and The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. The same applies to the theme of Judgment Day, which is not only the main theme of the expressionist Werfel but also part of many of his works in the form of forensic self-justifications and the scrutinizing of one’s conscience. Not only Not the Murderer but also Class Reunion and Spiegelmensch are prime examples. Finally, in Star of the Unborn, Judgment Day takes place without the use of fictional mediating characters. Many of Werfel’s works contain a strong musical element that encompasses their language and structure. The novel Verdi, with its musical theme and structure, is the best example. Another structuring device found in many of Werfel’s works is a clearly defined polarity betweenprotagonist and antagonist.
Although Werfel, like Franz Kafka, was not convinced of the value of psychoanalysis, his works lend themselves very well to psychoanalytical interpretation, because people’s motivations and their consciences are at the center of Werfel’s concerns. Indeed, Werfel was a profoundly religious writer. Under the childhood influence of his Czech nursemaid, he was exposed to Catholicism early in his life. He did accept Christianity, but he was never baptized. Christian religion pervades his writings, from an early essay, Die christliche Sendung: Ein offener Brief an Kurt Hiller (1917; the Christian mission: an open letter to Kurt Hiller), to Star of the Unborn. Using Christianity and a concern about people as a point of departure, Werfel is against all modern ideologies, against all “-isms” (communism, Marxism, national socialism, militarism, materialism), against technology and all attempts to make people subservient to institutions. In all of his works, humankind is at the center—human conscience, human relationships to other people and to God.
Not the Murderer
The most typically expressionist of Werfel’s early prose works is Not the Murderer, which, in the German subtitle, Werfel calls a novella. The work nevertheless has all the earmarks of a short novel. Consequently, critics have either simply called it Werfel’s first novel (Annemarie von Puttkamer) or his first major book of prose (Lore B. Foltin, Werner Braselmann). The book is a first-personnarrative.
The fictional, supposedly autobiographical narrator is Karl Duschek, the son of an Austrian officer, who first tells about his difficult childhood. His father has sent him to a military academy with only one goal in mind: to make him an officer. Whereas the father manages to advance to the rank of general, the son becomes a lieutenant who excels in his unmilitary attitude and behavior. He finally joins a group of anarchists who plan to assassinate the Russian czar. After having been arrested during a raid, Karl is brought before his father, who humiliates him in front of other officers by hitting him in the face with his riding whip. In the evening, Karl returns and threatens his father with a dumbbell, chasing the old man around the table. When the father surrenders, Karl does not kill him. After his imprisonment for resisting arrest, Karl immigrates to America. Before he leaves, he returns to an amusement park that he had once visited with his father and learns that the son of an amusement-stand owner had been arrested for killing his father. He remembers that it was here that he himself had thrown a ball into his own father’s face, and he realizes that he had meant to hurt him. He sends a letter to the public prosecutor pointing out the general, classical nature of the case before him.
The title of the book goes back to an old Albanian proverb. Werfel got the idea for the plot from an actual killing that took place in the Viennese Prater amusement park, which had prompted him to write a letter to the public prosecutor. The letter contained in the book is a slightly adapted version of the original. The main theme is one of the most popular themes of German expressionism, the father-son conflict, which was treated in plays such as Walter Hasenclever’s Der Sohn (1914; the son).
In Foltin’s interpretation, Werfel sees the father problem as the basic problem of state, society, and military—the basic problem of any kind of authority. He has the speaker of the anarchists explain it to Karl as underlying religion (God as the father of people), the state (the king or president as the father of the citizens), the court (judges and police supervisors as the fathers of those whom human society calls criminals), the army (the officer is the father of the soldiers), and industry (the entrepreneur is the workers’ father). Patria potestas, authority, is unnatural, is the negative principle as such. Werfel takes these thoughts up again in a letter to the public prosecutor in which he states that every father is Laius, the sire of Oedipus, thus suggesting an interpretation in Freudian terms. Independent of the social level, the guilt of the sons necessarily presupposes the guilt of the fathers. In his letter, Duschek/Werfel not only examines his own conscience but also indicts the generation of the fathers for defending its authority and its inability to abdicate control. He sees the guilt of the generation of the sons who fight their fathers because they are the fathers. Werfel does not support the anarchists’ fight—he was against the kind of political activism that many expressionists advocated—but he analyzes what he conceives as being a patriarchal world order.
The father-son conflict is a theme that occupied other writers from Prague, too. There are, for example, numerous parallels between Not the Murderer and Kafka’s works, particularly The Sentence (1913, 1916; also known as The Judgment) and Letter to His Father (1952, wr. 1919). Later, in The Pure in Heart, Werfel took up the father-son problem again; it is also one of the main themes of the novel The Forty Days of Musa...
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