Eye on Hitler’s Inner Sanctum
Proximity to power can be all too seductive. Walter Frentz was known primarily for movies he’d made about kayaking before he did much of the camerawork for Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a monumental propaganda film commissioned by Adolf Hitler about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress. He also was an eye behind the camera on Olympia, Riefenstahl’s meditation on muscle and movement at the 1936 Olympics. On Riefenstahl’s recommendation, Frentz later became Hitler’s personal cameraman. He filmed military sites to show Hitler conditions in the field and took footage of the Führer that was used in newsreels. Meanwhile he snapped thousands of candid still photographs of Hitler and the Nazi inner circle that were meant for private rather than public consumption. Nazi insiders were willing to pay handsomely for pictures of themselves with the Führer and Frentz was happy to oblige.
Like Riefenstahl, Frentz never officially joined the Nazi party and later maintained he did not participate in their crimes against humanity. Even though Riefenstahl was the only woman in Hitler’s inner circle besides Eva Braun, she maintained she had no knowledge of the campaign of racial purification that was being carried out in his name. But two new biographies—Stephen Bach’s Leni (Alfred A. Knopf) and Jurgen Trimborn’s Leni Riefenstahl (Faber and Faber)—contain convincing evidence that she witnessed a massacre of Jews in Konskie, Poland, in 1940 and that she used concentration camp Gypsies as slave labor in her 1944 film Tiefland. Similarly, even though Frentz could come and go as he pleased in the Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s headquarters, he claimed he had nothing to do with the Nazis’ dirty business. But he accompanied the SS leader Heinrich Himmler in August 1941 to Minsk, where he witnessed a mass shooting of Jews. Six days later, on his 34th birthday, Frentz was given the honor of sitting next to Hitler at one of his private gatherings.
Until her death in 2003, at age 101, Riefenstahl insisted that she was first and foremost an artist and kept herself above the political fray. In an essay entitled “Fascinating Fascism,” the late critic Susan Sontag gave lie to that claim. “Triumph of the Will represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater,” Sontag wrote. “How the 1934 Party convention was staged was partly determined by the decision to produce Triumph of the Will—the historic event serving as the set of a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary.” Until his death in 2004, at age 94, Frentz claimed he was an apolitical observer among the Nazis who was only doing his job. Ironically, the most revealing work he did was not the idealized Nazi film imagery he made with Riefenstahl, but his informal snapshots. “The Private Hitler,” beginning on page 30, features a selection of those images, many of which Frentz’s son Hanns-Peter made public for the first time in the new book Das Auge des Dritten Reiches, or The Eye of the Third Reich from Deutscher Kunstverlag. Frentz’s photos offer a rare view of Hitler and his cronies when their guard was down and serve as a reminder that the wellspring of evil is all too human.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.