The Last Days of a Nazi-Era Photographer

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Courtesy Beatrice Ertl

Hans Ertl, c. 1930s

Hans Ertl was in a hotel room in 1939 preparing to leave for a film shoot in Chile when the Nazis came for him. But the accomplished 30-year-old German photographer wasn't being arrested; he was being conscripted into the military. For the next six years, he served the Third Reich as "war correspondent" assigned to the Wehrmacht's legendary desert warrior, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who led Germany's North Africa campaign.

"He did what he could to survive," Ertl's youngest daughter Beatriz tells me as we sit over a soda and cookies in her living room in Bolivia's capital, La Paz. She is shuffling through old family photos, which might also be deemed a veritable archive of the Nazi era. She hands over images of a uniformed Hans in North Africa and on the set of Leni Riefenstahl's acclaimed documentary film Olympia, which chronicled the 1936 Olympics — for which Ertl was the director of photography. The Ertl family photographs have remained in a shoe box for the past half-century, halfway around the world from where they were recorded.

"He was not a Nazi," Beatriz Ertl insists, saying that her father, who died eight years ago at the age of 92, served out of "obligation" and that his nickname as "Hitler's photographer" was a misnomer. ("Sure, he knew him, but he wasn't his photographer.") Ertl's political allegiances are debatable: he earned his pre-war fame as the cameraman on Olympia, which has been regarded as both a visual masterpiece and a Nazi propaganda exercise aimed at demonstrating "Aryan" racial superiority. Riefenstahl, who certainly was Hitler's favorite filmmaker, was "the love of his life," says Ertl's daughter.

Whether it was deserved or not, it was the Nazi label that Ertl spent his life after 1945 fleeing. After the war, he was banned from working professionally in Germany and so moved his family to Bolivia, a country he had fallen in love with years before on a film shoot. Unlike many former leaders of the Third Reich who supported right-wing Latin American dictators against leftist insurgencies, Ertl tucked himself and his family away in rural Bolivia, shunning politics completely.

For years, he worked as a cameraman (shooting films such as Paititi and Hito Hito) and as a photographer, publishing Up, Down, a photo collection of Bolivia's varied natural beauty. But that all ended one day in 1961 when a feeble bridge collapsed underneath his tractor, plunging him and months of footage into the ravine below. His work ruined, he put down his cameras forever. Not even a gift from the Queen of Spain, recalls Beatriz, could lure him back.

"My father gave Queen Isabel his last copy of his Bolivia photo book when she came here in the 1970s," Beatriz recounts. "In return, the Queen sent him a fancy, advanced camera. It ended up as a present for one of my daughters."

Still, he didn't relinquish all creative pursuits. In his youth, Ertl had been obsessed with discovering ways to photograph movement. His inventions — the underwater and ski-mountable cameras — transformed modern photography more than 70 years ago. Commonplace Olympic images of today, such as watching swimmers from below or a skier's descent at close range, were first made possible by Ertl's ingenuity.

After the tractor accident, Hans — known here as "Juan" — threw himself into farming, turning the 6,000-acre lot he purchased in 1959 with his last dollars into a fully functioning farm. "He was constantly inventing things," remembers Beatriz, including new mechanisms for everything from casting bricks to raising cows.

Despite his having sequestered his family far away from Latin America's political ferment, his eldest and favorite daughter Monika joined the Che Guevara–inspired leftist ELN guerrilla movement in 1969 — a choice that pained her father. "He would say to me, 'I spent six years in war. I know what that life is. I saw people tortured, and the only thing I can do now is pray she doesn't suffer through what I saw; that when they find her, she'll die an immediate death,' " says Beatriz, explaining that Monika even asked her father to convert part of their hacienda into a guerrilla training ground — a request Hans angrily refused.

A few years later, Monika ended up as the most wanted woman in Latin America, having assassinated Toto Quintanilla, the former Bolivian supposedly responsible for cutting off Guevara's hands after his capture and execution. When the Bolivian military gunned down his daughter in 1973, Hans "didn't shed a tear," explains Beatriz. "He was simply relieved that she had gone in peace."

This stoicism was the norm. As a father, Hans was unaffectionate and strict. He was absent for much of his daughters' early lives — always off filming — until his first wife, the mother of his daughters, died from liver cancer in 1958. Outside of his family, he was a charmer, making friends constantly despite the fact that, says Beatriz, he spoke terrible Spanish. But Hans, who would have turned 100 this year, also seems to have been preoccupied with his own mortality. He rarely shared wartime stories, except to speak of his near death experiences. Once, a U.S. soldier's gun jammed, and another time, he jumped off a cliff to avoid capture by Soviet troops. In 1993 he was almost killed by a snake bite and resolved that the site of the incident would also be that of his grave — which he promptly dug himself, seven years before he would lie in it.

When death finally came, he requested to be buried with a handful of German soil — sent over by daughter Heidi in a hand-sewn pouch that was sneaked under customs' radar. His funeral, recalls Beatriz, drew people from four nearby villages. "They all had great affection for him," Beatriz remembers, as she glances at the unpublished photos that she's handing over to me, for no other reason than that I asked. "My father was an artist, a vagabond and an inventor. I hope people remember him like that," she says, her voice trailing off into the thin Andean springtime air.