The German translation of the socially critical song Where Have All The Flowers Gone was penned by him: Marlene Dietrich made the song known to European audiences under its German title Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind.
Colpet was born in 1905 in Königsberg, then part of East Prussia – his parents were of Russian origin and had come to the German Reich as stateless persons.
Originally, a career as an engineer was planned for Max Colpet: However, he abandoned his studies and decided to make writing his profession. He wrote feature articles for various newspapers and thus gained his first writing experience.
At the end of the 1920s, Max Colpet was involved in the founding of various political cabarets in Berlin: For example, he collaborated with the actor Erik Ode and the cabaret artist Werner Finck. In the early thirties, he wrote several manuscripts for the Babelsberg film industry: it was here that he met Billy Wilder, with whom he was to form a lifelong friendship. When Billy Wilder made his directorial debut in 1934 with the French crime film Mauvaise graine, Max Colpet was involved in the screenplay. Colpet had emigrated to France as a result of the Nazi seizure of power and sought success as a writer there.
In 1933 Max Colpet met with Marlene Dietrich in Paris: after the shooting of the film Song of Songs (1933) was completed, Dietrich went on a trip to Paris. She remembered a chanson from her early career: Allein in einer großen Stadt [Alone In a Big City], which Max Colpet and Franz Wachsmann had written together. When Marlene Dietrich learned that both of them were in Paris, she invited them both to her hotel – Colpet initially thought it was a joke when he received a call from the porter of the Versailles Hotel Trianon that Marlene Dietrich was expecting him. It was only when the calls became more frequent and Marlene Dietrich sent her Cadillac, along with a chauffeur, that Colpet and Wachsmann took the matter seriously.
Dietrich had forgotten the tune of Allein in einer großen Stadt: Colpet and Wachsmann helped her reconstruct the lyrics and melody in order to put the chanson on a record. For the B-side of the record, Colpet wrote another song for Marlene Dietrich: Wo ist der Mann? [Where Is The Man?] for which Peter Kreuder composed the music.
When the record was released, Colpet went by the pseudonym Kurt Gerhardt.
Colpet later described this encounter with Marlene Dietrich as groundbreaking for his further career – after the Second World War Colpet wrote numerous texts and translations for Marlene Dietrich, which became great successes.
A little later Max Colpet moved to Austria: He wrote the musical Pam-Pam for the Theater an der Wien in 1937.
When Austria was annexed by the German Reich, Colpet got into serious trouble: He was forced to flee to France again – this time as a stateless person.
In September 1939, he wrote a letter to Marlene Dietrich describing his situation: His accounts were frozen, he was living in poor conditions, and his only hope was friends who had moved to America. He asked Marlene Dietrich to put in a good word for him and provide him with the basic necessities to survive.
Max Colpet survived these hard times – he later repaid Marlene Dietrich by writing numerous song lyrics for her.
But Colpet did not only write chansons for Marlene Dietrich: his songs were also interpreted by Zarah Leander, Freddy Quinn, Hans Albers, Lale Andersen and Hildegard Knef. For Marlene Dietrich, he mainly wrote translations of famous chansons. He translated works by Pete Seeger, Jacques Brel (Bitte geh nicht fort, original: Ne me quitte pas), Charles Aznavour and Donovan. In the fifties, Max Colpet translated the musicals West Side Story and Irma La Douce into German.
After the Second World War, Colpet was invited to Hollywood by his friend Billy Wilder: in 1954 he acquired US citizenship. From 1966, Colpet lived in Switzerland. In 1991, seven years before his death, he published his autobiography.
Because of his legendary translations of American songs – most notably Where Have All The Flowers Gone, the name Max Colpet is still a household name to music connoisseurs today. Colpet originally set his sights on becoming a successful screenwriter: Despite his close friendship with director Billy Wilder, Colpet had only moderate success as a screenwriter. Colpet celebrated his greatest successes by writing poetry and translating song lyrics – his meeting with Marlene Dietrich in Paris in 1933 proved to be groundbreaking for his further career. The two were bound by a close friendship throughout their lives: when Marlene Dietrich published her memoirs at the end of the 1970s, Max Colpet was instrumental in writing the German edition.
Thanks to the numerous recordings of translations and songs penned by Max Colpet, he is still remembered today as one of the most influential German song poets of the 20th century.
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Bemmann, Helga: “Marlene Dietrich – Ihr Weg zum Chanson“ [Marlene Dietrich – Her Way to the Chanson], 1990 Verlag Lied der Zeit