Walter Frentz’s intimate pictures of the Führer and his friends offer chilling glimpses of mass murderers at work and play.
Past midnight. Oversize rustic furniture. Grand masters on the walls. An anxious glance to see if the boss noticed the stifled yawn. Teacups and crystal glasses on small tables. This was the grand room at the Berghof, Adolf Hitler’s home in the Bavarian Alps, and the Führer was holding forth for his invited guests.
At first, members of the Nazi elite found the invitations to these regular evenings an honor. Now they were bored to the point of pain. These were not conversations. The guests were extras on the stage of Hitler’s monologues.
Some of the guests had been ordered to attend. Others, like Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, did the ordering and were happy to be there. And then there was the tall, young man whispering in the corner to Eva Braun, showing her how to adjust a Leica camera. She smiled, whirled around, and snapped a picture of Hitler, who simply glanced her way and carried on with his monologue about architecture.
Eva Braun, whose very existence was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Third Reich, handed the Leica back to her teacher, Walter Frentz, and sat down on the sofa next to Hitler. Frentz was an outsider, yet he moved among the guests with comfort and confidence. Hitler seemed to approve. Perhaps because Frentz amused Braun. Perhaps because Frentz was a fellow artist.
Whatever the reason, Frentz enjoyed largely unfettered photographic access to the Führer and his inner circle. He was not Hitler’s official still photographer. That job went to Heinrich Hoffmann, who took carefully crafted propaganda pictures that depicted Hitler as larger than life. Hoffmann’s pictures were often staged and always showed Hitler in control. Frentz was primarily a cinematographer who shot Nazi newsreels. He was also a ubiquitous presence at gatherings of the Nazi elite and always had a still camera at hand to take spontaneous snapshots: Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels laughing at one of Hitler’s jokes; SS commander Heinrich Himmler smoking a cigar with his cronies; Eva Braun watching as Hitler, looking like a relaxed dad, plays with a child.
Frentz lived at Hitler’s headquarters. The Nazi bigwigs trusted him. His address book was a “Who’s Who” of the Third Reich, many of whom were happy to pay Frentz for photographic souvenirs of their time at the center of power. “The important thing is that they thought his snapshots would not be published,” says Frentz’s son Hanns-Peter, who publicly presented a wide-ranging selection of the photographer’s work for the first time in the new German book, Das Auge des Dritten Reiches (The Eye of the Third Reich). When he died in 2004, Walter Frentz left behind more than 20,000 war-era photographs, which provide an intimate, behind-the-scenes perspective on a diabolical regime. The candid and chilling pictures put a human face on mass murder.
Frentz began his film and photographic career as a propagandist, though not for the Nazis. His passion was white-water kayaking, and he proselytized endlessly as a young man. A pioneer of what would later be called extreme sports, he was the first to kayak down some of Europe’s wildest rivers and gorges. His pictures were shot from a few inches above the water, often below the crest of the next wave. Frentz lyricized “the joy of battle up there in the mountains or on a storm swept sea alone in a kayak.” He claimed to find there the “manly virtues of comradeship, tenacity, focus and decisiveness.” One of his kayaking comrades was a budding architect, Albert Speer.
In 1933 Frentz’s first three kayaking films premiered. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. It was a good year for Frentz, then 25. His kayaking buddy Speer recommended him to a rising young actress-turned-director, Leni Riefenstahl.
Frentz and Riefenstahl collaborated on her first large Nazi propaganda film, Victory of Faith, and then on perhaps the greatest work of cinematic propaganda ever, Triumph of the Will. Frentz used a hand-held camera to create a sense of closeness and immediacy, just as he had in his kayak films. “His greatest triumph,” gushed one reviewer about Frentz’s shots of Hitler riding through Nuremberg. “[It is] as if cameraman Frentz had the electricity of life in his camera instead of celluloid.” Frentz himself called his work on this Nazi glorification his “most wonderful assignment and greatest experience.”
Frentz had a special talent for bringing the viewer into the action. He often filmed from behind his subjects, for example, showing Hitler standing at attention, his right arm out in salute, looking into the eyes of the adoring masses. In these pictures the viewer sees the world from Hitler’s perspective. It is easy to feel Hitler’s excitement, to be seduced by the adulation. In Olympia, Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Frentz constructed a harness, so that marathon runners could carry a camera while training. He wanted the viewers to shake and sway with the runners. And he shot from the decks of competing sailboats: “It is more interesting for the viewers if they can join in the sailing.”
Frentz never joined the Nazi party, but he seems to have known where the money was. By the time he turned 30, he had worked on several Nazi films and traded in his car for a sporty Hanomag Sturm Cabriolet with a 50-hp engine. He had taken his first picture of Hitler. He was ready for the Nazis to go to war.
Frentz was a young man at the periphery of power. This was heady stuff, but it only got better. Riefenstahl recommended Frentz to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop for an assignment to Hitler’s headquarters. Frentz claimed he was one of three candidates and that an aide to Hitler picked him because at 6 feet 4 inches he cut an impressive figure.
Perhaps that memory was a product of Frentz’s vanity. He certainly cared about appearances. He was careful to point out that he was in the Luftwaffe, not the army. The uniforms were better looking. In fact, his position as a member of the Luftwaffe on special assignment to Hitler’s headquarters gave him enormous freedom. Since he was not part of the army’s so-called “Propaganda Company,” he could roam headquarters more freely. “I could do whatever I wanted,” he said. “I may have been in the Luftwaffe, but due to my special assignment status no one told me what to do at headquarters.”
While his films were clearly intended as propaganda, his still photographs were not meant for public consumption. Goebbels, Himmler, Göring, Braun and even Hitler himself were relaxed in his presence. A joke, a shared laugh, a cigar on the terrace at the Berghof, at play with Blondi the dog or with staffers’ children: These are the unguarded moments Frentz captured.
Frentz knew who he was dealing with. In 1941 he traveled to Minsk with Himmler. On the morning of August 15, he watched the mass execution of at least 80 men and women. Frentz claimed years later that he went with Himmler out of curiosity. “We never got out,” he complained. “We never got to the front.” Two days after the murders, he kayaked 35 kilometers, a trip he included after the war in his list of paddling accomplishments. Six days later he celebrated his 34th birthday and proudly noted in his diary that he had the place of honor to the right of the Führer.
Frentz never explained his relationship to Hitler. “He trusted me” was all he would allow. Frentz saw himself as an artist, as did Hitler. During the Führer’s many visits to architects’ studios to inspect plans for future German cities, Hitler chose not to take his official photographer. He took Frentz, with whom he could talk about aesthetics and architecture.
Hitler often sent Frentz on inspection tours. “I was his eye,” said Frentz. He would photograph the Atlantic defenses or an occupied city and present his findings in slide shows back at headquarters.
Frentz was a witness to power, to mass murder, to the laughter of criminals. Yet he was never very critical of what he saw. His son argued with him about this in the postwar years, often and strenuously. “His opinion was that he just documented what others did,” Hanns-Peter Frentz says now. But it wasn’t that simple. “I don’t blame my father…for being a soldier and cameraman during the Nazi period,” he adds. “Most people would have happily and proudly jumped at that chance.” Still, the son expected more from his father. “At the very latest by the end of the war with its 50 million dead, 6 million murdered Jews and other murdered opponents of the Nazis, and with the extensive destruction of Europe, I wish that an educated man like my father would have looked back in horror at his own role in these terrible events.”
Walter Frentz preferred to remember the excitement and glory of it all. As recently as 2000, he received a picture from Leni Riefenstahl of the two of them shooting film for Olympia. Frentz is down at ground level, concentrating, looking up, next to Riefenstahl. Imagine the crowds around them, the yelling, the dawn of the Third Reich. In the margin she scribbled, “Dear Walter—those were the days—wonderful.”
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.