Seven Years in Tibet

What really happened.
Oct. 10 1997 3:30 AM

Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in Tibet
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
TriStar Pictures

(Note: "Life and Art" is an occasional column that compares fiction, in various media, with the real-life facts on which it is ostensibly based.)

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It has been widely reported that Seven Years in Tibet, the tale of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's trek through Tibet and his relationship with the Dalai Lama, was nearly released with an embarrassing omission. It failed to mention that Harrer had been a sergeant in Hitler's SS. The news, revealed by the German magazine Stern this June, took the movie's cast and crew by surprise. At a press conference this fall, Brad Pitt declared: "You say 'Nazi,' and all these connotations like concentration camps come up. That was not the case. [Harrer] was an athlete who spent the entire war in Tibet." Director Jean-Jacques Annaud subsequently made a few changes. For instance, when, at the beginning of the film, Harrer and an expedition party leave Austria for the as-yet unscaled Himalayan mountain Nanga Parbat, a journalist calls Harrer "a distinguished member of the National Socialist Party." (The year is 1939.) Someone else hands him a Nazi flag to place atop the peak. Toward the end of the film, as Pitt's Harrer contemplates the takeover of Tibet by the intolerant, totalitarian Chinese, he says in a voice-over, "I shudder to recall how once, long ago, I embraced the same beliefs."

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Harrer certainly lamented the Chinese takeover. Whether that meant that he renounced previously held beliefs (or what exactly those beliefs were in the first place) is harder to ascertain. Harrer, who is 85 now, kept quiet about his Nazi past until the Stern article was published. This summer, one day after meeting Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, he issued a statement. It read, in part: "My personal political philosophy grew out of my life in Tibet ... and [it] places great emphasis on human life and human dignity. ... It is a philosophy that leads me to condemn as strongly as possible the horrible crimes of the Nazi period." Having already made Harrer's character an unappealing egotist interested only in mountain climbing until the Dalai Lama changed his life, the filmmakers were able to incorporate Stern's unpleasant revelation into the story line quite easily. The press material for the movie talks of Harrer's "emotional transformation" and then says that the Stern piece helps us understand the "extent" of this transformation.

Whether Harrer was transformed by his voyage and his connection to the Dalai Lama is unclear; there is some evidence to suggest that on crucial issues, he wasn't. But otherwise Seven Years in Tibet does conform to the record of Harrer's trip--although it should be noted that much of what we know of that trip comes from Harrer's own memoir, from which the movie takes its title.

In life, as on-screen, Harrer and his fellow expeditioners were placed in a British prisoner-of-war camp in India at the start of World War II. Harrer and several other prisoners escaped in 1944 (the movie has the escape take place earlier). He set off alone, but ended up traveling with Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), the head of the Nanga Parbat expedition. They made their way across the border and into Tibet, contending with treacherous terrain, frostbite, hunger, robbers, and an interdiction against foreigners. Finally, they reached Lhasa, the "forbidden city," in part by duping officials along the way with an out-of-date travel permit. And Harrer became a tutor to the 14th Dalai Lama.

In the movie, this relationship looks suspiciously like a fairy tale. Harrer not only teaches the Dalai Lama about radios and time zones but also befriends the "god king" and is apparently his sole source of informal contact and entertainment. Can Harrer really have helped build a movie theater for the Dalai Lama? Well, if we consider the Dalai Lama's three-paragraph foreword to Harrer's memoir some sort of guarantee of its accuracy, the answer is yes. The Dalai Lama also writes in his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, that Harrer had a "wonderful sense of humour" and that "as I began to get to know him better ... he became very forthright. ... I greatly valued this quality."

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T he movie does embellish somewhat the intensity of the Austrians' relationships with the Tibetans. Aufschnaiter did not marry a Tibetan during their stay. Harrer was not the Dalai Lama's only partner in play (for instance, it was someone else who helped him tinker with old cars). And it wasn't the explorer who proposed an escape plan to the Dalai Lama in 1950, when the Chinese invaded, though he did urge him to leave Lhasa.

As for the invasion, the film understandably simplifies events--it leaves out, for instance, the unheeded pleas for help made by Tibet to India that preceded the invasion and the unheeded pleas to the United Nations that followed it--but on the whole, the movie is fairly accurate. Tibet did fall to the Chinese in 11 days, and an incident shown in the film as crucial to the success of the invasion was indeed definitive--when, in a startling act of cowardice, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme (played in the movie by B.D. Wong), a Tibetan minister in charge of defending the town of Chamdo, not only abandoned it but also ordered the destruction of ammunition supplies before he left. Moreover, the film's foreshadowing of Chinese atrocities (as reflected by a dream in which the Dalai Lama sees his native village being pillaged and monks shot) reflects the historical facts all too well. As the written epilogue to the film states, almost all Tibet's monasteries--more than 6,000--have been ransacked under the occupation.

Seven Years in Tibet ends with the Dalai Lama's enthronement in 1950 at age 15 and his assumption of the role of political as well as spiritual leader of the country. The film's epilogue mentions that he fled Tibet in 1959, though it mentions neither that this took place in the middle of an attempted rebellion against the occupiers nor that his Buddhist beliefs had previously led him to cooperate with the Chinese. The Dalai Lama's life as exiled leader is beyond the movie's time frame (for more on this, see Slate's "Assessment" of the "Ambassador from Shangri-La").

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However, the film is really less historical drama than personal epic--the story of how a European was changed by Tibet and its philosophy. We are supposed to believe that Pitt's Harrer has learned to be a better person; offered as proof is his changed attitude toward his son, Rolf (whose name in real life is Peter). In life and in the movie, Harrer left for Nanga Parbat when his wife was still pregnant. (In the movie, Harrer knows she's pregnant. Time reports that Harrer denies having known she was.) She divorced him while he was gone. At various points in the film, Harrer thinks longingly of Rolf and writes him letters. His overtures are rebuffed; his son has come to think of his stepfather as his true father. (Vanity Fair reports that Peter actually was abandoned by his mother, too; he was raised by his grandmother during Harrer's absence. Harrer's memoir, which covers the years 1939-1952, never mentions him.) Pitt's Harrer finally returns to Austria, dropping a music box--a gift from the Dalai Lama--in his son's bedroom. The last scene shows father and son climbing a mountain in the Alps. The Nazi flag of the opening scene has become a Tibetan one, which they place on the summit.