Interesting Women : Arletty

From “La Defence” to Paradise, and back. *
Léonie BATHIAT (1898-1992) (Ger., Eng., Fr.) was a French actress … and much more is in her biography.


She was born into a working class family in the Parisian suburb Courbevoie (Ger., Eng.), near the old fortress La Defence (Ger., Eng.) – later the ambiguous title of her autobiography. Her  father worked in the tramway repair shops and died early from a work accident. Through WWI young Léonie was working in the war industry, later she became a revue girl. She was twenty at the end of The Great War.

She had learned the typewriter and was eager for independence, and soon she entered the stage, singing nice and not so nice chansons, best together with her friend Sacha GUITRY (Ger., Eng.). She spend time in the Berlin of the late twenties, and finally made it from the boulevard theatre stages into the film industry, her first role 1930, later she was filming in Babelsberg (Ger., Eng.). Her friend in those days (and until his death in the 1960s) was a certain Jean-Pierre DUBOST, whom she refused to marry despite his offers. She said that she did not want “husband or sons slaughtered in the next war” – right she was : the next war came right to her front door in Paris.
When her fees increased she lived in a luxurious hotel, the Lancaster near Champs Elysée, and in 1941 a Luftwaffenoffizier named Hans Jürgen SOEHRING (1908-1960) (Ger.) crossed her path. Ten years her younger, it was passion, and they lived it.


SOEHRING was by no means a super-aryan-yippyayeah-nazi burning for the Fuehrer, but a well-educated and cosmopolitan man.
He was born in Istanbul, the son of a German diplomat went to schools all over Europe, even in Germany. Finally he studied Rechts- und Staatswissenschaften in Leipzig, Berlin, Grenoble ; he had visited the London School of Economics, later was trained in Santiago de Chile & Valparaiso ; he spoke of course English, Spanish and French with a small accent, and came to Paris in the rank of an Oberstleutnant (Ger., Eng.). In fact he was a Feldrichter, a judge responsible for inner-Luftwaffe jurisdiction.
He was not an opportunist, he simply wanted to survive, at least that is my opinion about him. They met & and made the best out of it.
SOEHRING did not wear his uniform at social occasions, only when it was not to be avoided. ARLETTY sure realised how many poisoned glances & glimpses she got, (” J’étais la femme la plus invitée, je suis la plus évitée.” she said after 1945), and SOEHRING was not too dumb to ignore it.

The French society of forties’ Paris did not like this liaison, the German command either. So at the end of 1943 Hans Juergen was degraded (for what reasons ever) to NCO and shown the direct path to the front. He served in Italy (Montecassino, spring 1944, no fun) and was promoted there from Unteroffizier to officer again (Leutnant, later Oberleutnant). Finally he was transferred back to the Reichskriegsgericht (Ger.). His job at this institution was to put together files about the Bund Deutscher Offiziere (Ger.) and the Nationalkommitee Freies Deutschland (Ger., Eng.). I guess one could call this intelligence work.

ARLETTY and SOEHRING always held contact, even managed to see each other, but their ways parted. She made him write, and that is what he did. And interestingly enough Hans Juergen SOEHRING is a founding member of the famous Gruppe 47 (Ger., Eng.) – he was there at the very first meeting in Bannwaldsee.
While SOEHRING was fighting, ARLETTY had the most important role of her life : She was Garance la beautè / la reine in Les Enfantes du Paradis (Ger., Eng.) – one of the most important films of European cinema – no matter whether you like European, especially French, cinema, or not – this is one of the most important fillums ever made – how and why and what is a novel in its own right. And ARLETTY is an important part of it.


Life moves on – and while Les Enfants was shown in France, ARLETTY was doin’ time : She sat in Drancy (shortly before used by the Nazis for the Jews, Ger., Eng.) for some months and later had to appear before a tribunal d’épuration, a court for cleansing. They had her hair not shaven, and seemingly were not quite clear about the points of accusation – she had not collaborated, never had appeared in a German (propaganda-)film, never visited Berlin to meet Goebbels – she had had an affaire with a German officer, was a star, and it did not feel right.
And ARLETTY was not shy. She told the judge “Si mon cœur est français, mon cul, lui, est international !” – as fine at this is, it does not help in the face of a humiliated nation. She was sentenced, banned from appearing on stage, and was not allowed to come near Paris at a distance of 80 kilometers ; for two years. She could not reconnect to her pre-war success when she had stared for example besides a young Jean GABIN (in Le jour se lève, 1939 ; Jean would then go to Hollywood, where Marlene was waiting, nervously, perhaps) – she returned into business, but it was not the same as before.

SOEHRING married (perhaps, was married ; two sons) and joined the German Foreign Office in 1951. He became Consul in Luanda (Ger., Eng.) (Angola) in 1956, then (seemingly in the same year) Generalkonsul in Leopoldville, today Kinshasa (Ger., Eng.), and finally in June 1960 full ambassador, after the founding of the Republic of Kongo (Ger., Eng.).
The family went to a swim in the Kongo River (Ger., Eng.), Sunday 9th of October 1960. Hans Juergen SOEHRING simply vanished in the river and never was found – heart attack, maelstrom ? Possibly a crocodile.
ARLETTY had a good relationship with the family, of course she visited. She had no more major success in film or on stage. In 1966 she received an injury from an accident and lost her eyesight totally. She lived in Paris, at last in some social housing, near to poverty and basically forgotten, until her death 1992. Here she is (via).
What an interesting woman.


This post is largely based on the article Eine Liebe in Zeiten des Krieges by Klaus HARPPRECHT (Ger., about), in : Die ZEIT, 8. X. 2009 (32, 2009) (here).


7 thoughts on “Interesting Women : Arletty

  1. Marlene became a star with Der Blaue Engel 1930 – while Arletty had her first minor role in a film in this year. Harpprecht is not clear in his article about dates, from when to when Arletty was in Berlin ; but she definitely was there for some years, and appears in German films of 1932 (La Belle Avienture) and 1933 (Walzerkrieg) – see her complete filmography in the French wikipedia.
    Arletty & Marlene must have met at some occasion, some party, dinner, official Empfang, after all it is not a too vast number of actors in pre-war Berlin.
    I bet Arletty would have liked to meet Mr. Wayne some years earlier.

  2. I admire her for sticking to her guns and living life on her terms. She may have traveled on a rough road, but she decided that was the path for her and stayed true to her compass. People who follow their own feelings and beliefs, even if it brings them suffering, are some the strongest and most inspirational people who embody freedom, free will, and true strength and character.

  3. A war time story, MsScarlet

    I hope so too IDV, and I (want to) think they did.

    She was certainly an independent woman Eroswings, I want to believe that she was happy in the end.

    Certainly so Melanie, certainly so.

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