Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Song of Bernadette: A Writer’s Ex-voto

When the Jewish Austrian writer Franz Werfel fled from German troops occupying France in 1940, he came through the town of Lourdes that at the time already was an important place of pilgrimage and adoration for the Virgin Mary. To cross the Pyrenees on foot with heart problems putting him at risk and the Germans at his heals, Franz Werfel made the vow to tell the amazing story of Bernadette Soubirous, if he escaped safe and sound to the USA. He arrived in New York a few months later. 

As soon as Franz Werfel had settled in the USA, he set out to sing The Song of Bernadette (Das Lied von Bernadette), the ex-voto that he had promised to offer in fulfilment of his vow. The biographical novel was first published in German in 1941 including a preface explaining why he, a Jew, wrote the story of the Catholic saint Bernadette Soubirous. The English translation came out in 1942. Directed by Henry King the best-selling novel was adapted for the screen as early as in 1943 and won four Oscars. 

The film – like the novel – tells the fictionalized life story of Bernadette Soubirous (played by Jennifer Jones who won the Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance), the daughter of a poor family from the village of Lourdes in France. The Song of Bernadette begins on 11 February 1858. Bernadette is a malnourished and asthmatic fourteen-year-old who has a hard time keeping up pace with the other children learning the catechism for their First Communion because she is sick often. Her class teacher, Sister Marie Thérèse Vauzous (played by Gladys Cooper), reprimands her for her ignorance and tells Dean Marie Dominique Peyramale (played by Charles Bickford) that she doesn’t deserve the holy picture of the Virgin Mary that he wants to give her. Later that day Bernadette, her sister Marie and their friend Jeanne go out to gather wood at Massabielle, a desolate and ill-famed place outside Lourdes. Because Marie and Jeanne don’t want frail Bernadette to wade through the cold water of a brook, she waits at the entrance of the grotto. There she is attracted by a brilliant light and sees for the first time the beautiful white Lady (played by Linda Darnell) who asks her to say the rosary with her. When she tells Marie and Jeanne about her vision, Bernadette’s fate takes its course. The story of her vision spreads among the villagers, but most of them are sceptic, including Bernadette’s parents. The girl returns to the grotto as the Lady had asked her to do fifteen times and soon other people accompany her. The growing assembly at the grotto of Massabielle disquiets stately and religious authorities. Bernadette is repeatedly questioned and ridiculed, especially when she eats weeds and mud from the grotto because The Lady told her to "eat of the plants" and "drink of the spring and wash there.” The next day water flows from the spot and soon its healing powers, attracting people worldwide until today, are discovered. People remain sceptic because miracles don’t seem to fit into their modern and secular world. The questionings continue for years on end until Bernadette Soubirous dies on 16 April 1879. 

The Song of Bernadette may not be correct in every detail of the saint’s life, but the story of the poor frail peasant girl, who continued to follow the call of The Lady even when the authorities, her teachers and her parents forbade it, is touching despite all. It shows how powerful religious faith is and how much a believer can endure. It also gives account of our science-based society that disregards belief and counts only on knowledge. Bernadette Soubirous’ visions were suspicious and she wasn’t treated well. Altogether her life wasn’t a very happy one, but she was the source of Lourdes’ fame as well as wealth. Thanks to her Lourdes no longer is a poor small village, but a thriving town that attracts millions of pilgrims every year. 

Today is the feast of Saint Bernadette Soubirous. There can be no doubt about her having been an impressing person. So why not watch The Song of Bernadette in her memory?

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