Walter Frentz

'Hitler's photographer'
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The Independent Online

Although many of Walter Frentz's pictures and film material of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich have been shown again and again on television across the world, Frentz remains little known outside specialist circles. He was there at the beginning of Hitler's dictatorship, being the key cameraman at the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg in 1933, and he was still there filming in the closing days of Hitler's collapsing state in 1945. He was an observer of extraordinary historical events and a pioneer in cinematographic techniques.

Walter Frentz, photographer: born Heibronn, Germany 21 August 1907; married 1949 Edeltrude Esser (née Bewerunge, died 1998; one son); died Uberlingen am Bodensee, Germany 6 July 2004.

Although many of Walter Frentz's pictures and film material of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich have been shown again and again on television across the world, Frentz remains little known outside specialist circles. He was there at the beginning of Hitler's dictatorship, being the key cameraman at the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg in 1933, and he was still there filming in the closing days of Hitler's collapsing state in 1945. He was an observer of extraordinary historical events and a pioneer in cinematographic techniques.

Frentz was born in Heibronn, near Stuttgart, in 1907. He studied electrical engineering in Munich and Berlin but showed an early interest in both film and architecture. Regarding himself as a gifted amateur, he started filming with a hand-held camera.

It was in Berlin that he met Albert Speer, a fellow student, in 1929. The two shared an interest in sport, especially sailing, mountaineering and kayaking. Frentz's first film was about kayaking: Wildwasserparadiese im Osterreich und Jugoslawien ("Whitewater Paradises in Austria and Yugoslavia", 1931). In 1933 he did a feature for the film company UFA on the voyage of the liner Hamburg to New York.

Through Speer, later Hitler's architect and Minister for Armaments, he was introduced to Leni Riefenstahl. She had already received the commission from Hitler to direct a film about the Nazi party rally in 1933, and was looking for suitable assistants. Frentz collaborated on her much-admired "documentaries" of the Nazi party rallies, Sieg des Glaubens ( Victory of the Faith, 1933) and Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will, 1934). There followed Hände am Werk ("Hands at Work", 1935), celebrating German manual skills, which Frentz was commissioned to make for Goebbels' propaganda ministry. In 1936, Frentz was back with Riefenstahl for the two Olympia films, on neither of which he was credited, Fest der Völker ( Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations, 1938) and Fest der Schönheit ( Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty, 1938), an account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Remarkably, after this successful run, he found it difficult to get work. He decided to enlist in the expanding Luftwaffe, in 1938. In the same year, he was sent to Vienna, to record Hitler's triumphant return there after Austria was occupied and, in 1939, he was dispatched to cover the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop's historic mission to Moscow to negotiate the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

Widely known as "Hitler's photographer", a position actually held by Heinrich Hoffmann, Frentz was a photographer for the Luftwaffe with the rank of Leutnant (second lieutenant); later he was promoted to Oberleutnant, flying on sorties with bombers to film the attacks on Poland, Holland and elsewhere in 1939 and 1940. When France fell, he was called upon to film the armistice signing in the forest of Compiègne.

Earlier, in a famous shot, Hitler was seen, 17 June 1940, joyfully slapping his thigh after hearing of the French surrender. The Nazi censor allowed this picture to circulate as it was thought it would reveal that Hitler too was human. On 28 June 1940 Frentz was in Paris to film Hitler's tour of the city.

After the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, he was ordered to Hitler's command centre, Wolfschanze ("Wolf's Lair"), in East Prussia. In the next years he spent much of his time in the circle close to the Nazi leader, his direct superior being Luftwaffe Colonel Nicolaus von Below. In 1941, he accompanied the SS commander, Heinrich Himmler, to the Eastern Front and filmed a massacre in Minsk. He returned shocked and was advised to destroy the film.

He ventured out again to film the so-called Atlantic Wall, which was supposed to prevent the Allied invasion of France. He was also sent to film the V1 and V2 rocket launches and their construction. Photographs of the Dora- Mittelbau rocket factory, taken by him in June or July 1944, lay forgotten in an attic for more than 50 years until February 1998, when Frentz's son discovered them in a suitcase.

When Hitler retreated to the Berlin underground HQ, Frentz was there. He took the last pictures of the Führer published in the Third Reich. This showed a sick-looking Hitler, on 20 March 1945, encouraging boy soldiers of the German Home Guard, Volksturm.

Frentz managed to leave Berlin on one of the last planes out of the besieged city, on 25 April 1945. He reported to his superiors at Obersalzberg and was arrested. The Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering had attempted to make peace with the Allies and the SS turned on him and his subordinates. Part of Frentz's film archive was destroyed at this time. Like Goering, Frentz fell into American hands and spent a few months in the American POW camp at Hammelburg before being sent home in 1946.

After the Second World War Frentz attempted to get back to his photography. However, in the early years of the Allied occupation there was some reluctance to employ "Hitler's photographer" even though he had never been in the Nazi party. He started a career lecturing to adult groups.

Opportunities improved after the setting up of the Federal Republic, in 1949, and he was official cameraman at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. In 1953 he was commissioned to make a film about ancient Egypt, 5000 Jahre Agypten, ("5,000 Years of Egypt"). Other contracts came from the West German Ministry of Agriculture and the German Youth Hostels Association (DJH). After a visit to the British Isles, in 1959, he made England. He turned to environmental themes with his film Alarm, Alarm (1969). In 1970 was commissioned by the Council of Europe to do a project on Europe's architectural inheritance.

Walter Frentz married a widow, Edeltrude Esser, in 1949, who had four children. A painter, she was the wife of a friend killed in the war. Their son, Hanns-Peter Frentz, born in 1953, although rejecting the values of Nazism, retains an interest in his father's work. It is believed that Frentz left behind nearly 20,000 images which have not been published.

What did Frentz think about his previous life and work? Gitta Sereny, in her 1995 book Albert Speer: his battle with truth, records a visit she paid to Frentz. She found him living in a "rather splendid house" by Lake Constance. She found a strange absence of "almost any photographic evidence of his years of activity around Hitler". He had "excellent cocktail-party manners" but was "exceptionally uninformative". He claimed to have forgotten almost everything connected with Hitler's HQ and lost much of his material at the end of the war.

In 1992, Jürgen Stumpfhaus made a documentary about Frentz, Das Auge des Kameramannes ( The Eye of the Third Reich). A reviewer of this commented, "throughout we gain insight into a man who seems to feel no guilt because he believes he 'only reproduced, never produced' what he saw".

David Childs



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