Well, at the start the weather in Basel could have been better, as Ré Soupault notes at the beginning of her travel diary, but at least there is no rain. So, on September 8, 1951, she jumped on her Vélosolex and covered hundreds of kilometers through southern Germany in five weeks with this auxiliary motor-driven bicycle – from the Moselle via Stuttgart to Munich through umpteen cute little towns. She visits acquaintances, explores new career prospects and studies the post-war Germans, her former compatriots.
Born Meta Erna Niemeyer in Pomerania in 1901, Soupault left her homeland in 1928 after studying at the Bauhaus in Weimar and moved to Paris, where she first gained a foothold as a journalist and fashion designer. With her husband, the well-known surrealist Philippe Soupault, she went to North Africa before the outbreak of war, fled to America before the advancing Nazis and returned to Europe in 1948 – now without Philippe.
Almost penniless, she built a new life as a literary translator in Switzerland and over the years became an important mediator in the course of Franco-German rapprochement. It was not until Ré Soupault died in Versailles in 1996 that her important photographic oeuvre was gradually discovered. She had already visited northern Germany in 1950 and was shocked by the omnipresent misery in the refugee camps.
Poverty in the Palatinate
A year later, the world in the young Federal Republic still does not look very rosy, as Soupault has to state after a conversation with two Palatinate officials: “God, the people here are poor.” The title “Everywhere devastation. Evening cinema”, which the publisher Manfred Metzner chose for the travelogues, aptly captures a zeitgeist that meanders incessantly between fatalism and lust for life.
On her two-wheeler trips, Soupault defies the bad weather and her vehicle, which is in need of repairs. Sometimes she pretends to be French, sometimes she speaks German with the people whose paths she crosses. This ability to change does not limit perspectives. Ré Soupault sees the ongoing hatred of the French occupiers as well as their arrogance towards the vanquished.
She shows some understanding for the Germans caught in their misery, without accepting their chauvinistic provinciality, from which she feels noticeably alienated, as a justification for anything. Ré Soupault’s reflective judgment is undoubtedly her cardinal virtue. Beyond the historical observations, it provides insights into the self-discovery of an amazing personality.
Though unlucky herself, she enjoys a life that she sees as a series of open-ended experiments. The thrilling way in which Soupault delights in useful little things like the attachment of a rear-view mirror makes every new-modern mindfulness teaching degenerate into a phrase.
For example, she solemnly notes: “The great discovery of these days is the cigar.” Intellectual reflections are also not neglected, whether as a meditation on the translation of literature or as a plausible conclusion that “one should investigate the history of the development of the bathroom”.
Even larger-scale questions are asked by the radio essays that are now available in a selection under the programmatic title “Geistige Brücken”, also from the Heidelberg Wunderhorn Verlag, which has done so much for the work of both Soupaults.
Between 1951 and 1986, Ré Soupault wrote lengthy reports such as “The World of the Celts”, “Paris under the Commune” or “The Role of Women in European Culture from Antiquity to the Present Day” for various German radio stations. All of them provide well-founded insights into historical contexts that are enviably relaxed and devoid of any sensationalism.
Next to them are razor-sharp portraits of Lautréamont and Romain Rolland, which she specially translated into German, or of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She came to radio as a career changer, as her travel diary documents: pieces that are still absolutely worth reading today.