It gets complicated discussing Seven Years in Tibet, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s lavish, meandering and often moving film of a 1953 memoir by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer. A blue-eyed, bottle-blond Brad Pitt, looking every inch the Aryan Adonis, stars as Harrer, who set out in 1939 to climb the killer Nanga Parbat, in the Himalayas, wound up in a British POW camp and escaped to find solace in the forbidden (to foreigners) Tibetan city of Lhasa. There, in the Potala Palace, the young Dalai Lama is being trained by monks to take his place as the voice of Tibetan Buddhism.
Somewhere between the film’s conventional heroics and its calculated sentiment, there is a stirring tale of the bond that grows between Harrer and the Dalai Lama, known as Kundun (His Holiness), beautifully played by 14-year-old Jamyang Wangchuk. Here’s the complicated part: Somewhere between the end of shooting and the film’s release, it was discovered that from 1933 on, Harrer, now 85, was a member of Hitler’s SA (storm troopers) and, from 1938 on, was in the SS (the elite guard). That leaves the damage-control wizards to sell a $65 million epic that has inadvertently cast the hottest hunk in showbiz as a Nazi.
Still, Annaud and screenwriter Becky Johnston haven’t been caught too short. Even before adding a scene showing Harrer accepting a Nazi pennant as he leaves a train station in Austria, they had figured Harrer for a cold bastard. Credit Pitt for not stinting on playing a vain über-opportunist who would cut any political corners for his own glory.
Harrer, impatient with domesticity, leaves his very pregnant wife, Ingrid (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), to join fellow Austrian Peter Aufschnaiter (an under-used David Thewlis) on the hard climb. Their lack of success is followed by a British arrest as war breaks out. “Vat’s da charge?” asks Harrer with snide resignation. “Failure to summit?” Pitt’s Teutonic accent isn’t as deft as his Belfast-boy lilt in The Devil’s Own, but it’s no cheap Ah-nuld imitation, either. Escaping after nearly five years, Harrer and Aufschnaiter climb, hike and drag across rough terrain for 21 months. The film drags with them. Annaud hasn’t lost the feel for the forces of nature that he showed in Quest for Fire and The Bear, but, even with the Andes standing in majestically for the Himalayas, the film is slow to find its emotional focus.
It’s in Lhasa that Annaud hits his stride. Re-creating the city and its customs without resorting to gloss is a challenge that Martin Scorsese also faces with Kundun, his upcoming film about the Dalai Lama. Annaud, production designer At Hoang, costume designer Enrico Sabbatini and cinematographer Robert Fraisse deliver striking results.
hind the gates of Lhasa, Harrer discovers a world beyond his own ego. He teaches his hosts about ice skates, which the Tibetans believed were worn to cut meat. Aufschnaiter later marries Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), a tailor who fits the men for suits in a scene that allows for humor and, more crucially, provides a chance for a buffed Pitt to strip to the waist.
Before he is presented to Kundun, Harrer is instructed by the boy’s mother (Jetsun Pema, the sister of the Dalai Lama): “Never look him in the eye, and never, never touch him.” Despite the rules, Harrer is befriended by Kundun and acts as a tutor to the boy, who calls him Yellow Head and asks him to build a movie theater and answer such questions as, “Where is Paris, what is a Molotov cocktail, and who is Jack the Ripper?”
Pitt and Wangchuk cut to the heart when Harrer puts a comforting arm around this boy who must deal with betrayal by a courtier, expertly played by B.D. Wong, and the threat of a Chinese invasion. Later, it is the boy — holding Harrer’s face in his hands — who sends the man back to the world to heal himself.
Regrettably, delicacy degenerates into schmaltz with a parallel plot about Harrer and his son that plays like leftovers from Johnston’s sappy script for The Prince of Tides. Harrer writes letters home to the son he never saw and receives only rejection. Amazing, really, when you consider that the real Harrer never knew that his wife was pregnant when he left Austria. This is soap opera, and the John Williams score — with cello solos from Yo-Yo Ma, no less — does not disguise it.
Annaud recovers by illuminating the horror that forced the Dalai Lama into exile when Mao’s soldiers busted into Lhasa to destroy monasteries and kill monks. In showing how this now-lost Tibet transformed Harrer (no one denies his humanitarian efforts after his return home), Annaud’s film rebukes critics who would dismiss it as Tibetan chic — another trendy, half-understood cause for celebrities to rally around. Seven Years in Tibet, however flawed, has feeling and purpose. It bears witness.