Franz Werfel Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111207644-Werfel.jpg Franz Werfel in 1940 Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Franz Werfel’s sudden and dramatic explosion into international preeminence after the publication of the novel Das Lied von Bernadette (1941; The Song of Bernadette, 1942) tended to obscure the fact that this versatile author had already established an extraordinary reputation as an expressionist poet and playwright. In fact, it might perhaps be said that, with the possible exception of the American author Robert Penn Warren, no other modern writer has so firmly established his position in all three genres: poetry, drama, and the novel.

Apparently poetry was Werfel’s first love: He produced four volumes before 1919, and it was his concern with the expressionist lyric and his connection with the expressionist publication Der jüngste Tag (the Judgment Day) that led to his consideration of drama as a vehicle of expressionist thought. Indeed, there are many critics who hold that Werfel’s primary achievement lay in his contribution to the early development of expressionist poetry. It must also be remembered that much of Werfel’s drama is highly poetic; for example, in the original German, The Eternal Road is written in a dactylic-trochaic descending rhythm of Werfel’s own invention, a rhythm that Ludwig Lewisohn successfully reproduces in the English translation.

It was, however, the novel that established him as a popular writer. His first novel, Nicht der Mörder (1920; Not the Murderer, 1937), although brief enough to be called a novella by Werfel in the subtitle, is nevertheless considered to be a novel by most critics because of its depth and complexity. In Not the Murderer, Werfel explores, through the relationship of the protagonist to his...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the judgment of many critics, Franz Werfel’s achievements as a dramatist are the most significant in a career notable for its diversity. Had he done nothing else, his contributions as a leader in the expressionist drama would ensure his place in literary history. Not only were Werfel’s plays successful in Europe, but they also were almost immediately transported to London and New York, where they were produced by such men as Max Reinhardt and given generally fine reviews by such publications as The New York Times—although Brooks Atkinson was obviously confused by both Goat Song and Schweiger, and found them to be nearly incomprehensible.

In drama, just as he had in novels, Werfel crowned his rounded career with a change to a realistic straightforward style; his last dramatic work was a comedy filled with hope and optimism, so that even if Werfel’s reputation as an expressionist had not been well secured he might have secured some level of recognition through his final dramatic masterpiece, Jacobowsky and the Colonel.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to the novels listed above, Franz Werfel (VEHR-fehl) authored the novellas included in the collection Geheimnis eines Menschen (1927; Saverio’s Secret, 1937). Werfel’s voluminous lyric work was published in a number of collections, among them the influential expressionist ones: Der Weltfreund (1911; friend to the world), Wir sind (1913; we are), Einander(1915; to one another), and Der Gerichtstag (1919; Judgment Day). In addition, Werfel wrote a number of internationally successful dramas: an adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women (415 b.c.e.) titled Die Troerinnen des Euripides (pb. 1915); Spiegelmensch (pb. 1920; mirror man), dealing with the theme of the alter ego; Bocksgesang (pb. 1921; Goat Song, 1926), a mythic drama; Juárez und Maximilian (pb. 1924; Juárez and Maximilian, 1926), a drama about the Habsburg emperor of Mexico, which became Werfel’s first international success; and Paulus unter den Juden (pr., pb. 1926; Paul Among the Jews, 1928), which treats the historical moment when Christianity broke away from Judaism.

Werfel’s greatest American success was Jacobowsky und der Oberst (1944; Jacobowsky and the Colonel, 1944), the story of a Polish officer and a Jew who manage to escape from advancing German soldiers in France. Most works have appeared in Gesammelte Werke (1948-1975, 16 volumes; collected works), edited by Adolf D. Klarmann.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

During his early career, Franz Werfel was one of the most outstanding representatives of German expressionism, giving voice to the world-embracing attitude of this literary movement. This feeling of oneness with all humankind is best exemplified by his famous verse line “My only wish is to be related to you, O Man!” His drama Spiegelmensch incorporated one of the most popular expressionist themes, that of the alter ego, which was to find its way into many contemporary films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Today, however, Werfel is remembered primarily for his novels, which made him one of the most widely read German-speaking writers of his time.

Werfel’s main achievement in his novels lies not in his language or his style, which is traditional and similar to that of other writers of the 1930’s and 1940’s, but rather in his insistence on the importance of people (no doubt a heritage of expressionism) and his belief in the importance of people’s spiritual well-being. He is concerned about people finding their places in relation to others and to God rather than about their material welfare. Werfel fought against all materialistic, “areligious,” agnostic, and nihilistic elements of his time, including science and technology, against an “age that with mockery, anger and indifference is turning away from these ultimate values of our life,” as Werfel himself put it. This insistence on the validity of metaphysics was at the same time the reason for his declining popularity during the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, when a settling of accounts with the German Nazi past and a present of newly gained affluence became the hallmark of social-critical German literature.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Everett, Susanne. The Bride of the Wind: The Life and Times of Alma Mahler-Werfel. New York: Viking, 1992. This biography of Werfel’s wife describes their life together and depicts twentieth century Austria. Includes bibliography and index.

Heizer, Donna K. Jewish-German Identity in the Orientalist Literature of Else Lasker-Schüler, Friedrich Wolf, and Franz Werfel. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1996. Heizer compares and contrasts the works of Werfel, Else Lasker-Schüler, and Friedrich Wolf, paying particular attention to the issue of Jewish-German identity. Includes bibliography and index.

Huber, Lothar, ed. Franz Werfel: An Austrian Writer Reassessed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A collection of papers presented at an international symposium on Werfel, discussing his life and works. Includes bibliography.

Jungk, Peter Stephan. Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. A biography of Werfel that covers his life and works. Includes bibliography and indexes.

Michaels, Jennifer E. Franz Werfel and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. An examination of the critical reaction to Werfel’s literary works. Includes bibliography and index.

Wagener, Hans. Understanding Franz Werfel. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. See chapter 4, which contains a detailed study of Werfel’s prose works, with each major title receiving a separate discussion. Provides notes and an annotated bibliography.