SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET(1997) ***
"Seven Years in Tibet" is based on the autobiographical 1953 best-seller by Heinrich Harrer. The ghost of Shangri-La hovers over much of the movie, although this is no fantasy. The most visible symptom is that protagonist Harrer, who spends 12 years in the region (seven of them in Tibet proper), doesn't seem to age at all.
Brad Pitt plays Harrer, an Austrian champion alpinist. In the Fall of 1939 he is at the Vienna train station, leaving for the Himalayas, hoping to be the first to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the highest peaks (26,660 feet ; Everest rises to 29, 028). By that time Austria had been annexed by Hitler's Third Reich, to the great joy of far too many Austrians. This was the notorious "Anschluss" (Union) that had been preceded in 1934 by Austrian Nazis murdering the Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss.
The Nazis give Harrer a send-off with honors, complete with Nazi flag. Harrer seems indifferent to the fuss --if not impatient. His marriage is rocky as his pregnant wife feels abandoned. Heinrich also reacts dourly to fellow Austrian guide Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) who may have been appointed by the regime (but this, like other details, is unclear).
Next comes some spectacular climbing. The two Austrians do not get along because Heinrich takes too many foolhardy (read also "ego-boosting") chances and is arrogant. Soon however, in September 1939, Germany and England are at war. The British intern the climbers in a POW camp.
Over the years, lone wolf Heinrich tries to escape four times. After joining a group attempt he immediately leaves his companions to make his way to northern India. Getting very close to Tibet, he runs into Peter. The Wandering Aryans, ever bickering and antagonistic, trek for about two years-- the time-frame is imprecise. The twosome are prevented by Tibetans from entering the country but after more adventures they manage to sneak into the holy city of Lhasa where they are exempted from the "no-foreigners" rule.
All this has interest, suspense, unforced colorfulness and spectacular landscapes. But time and space are so episodic that what we see feels like excerpts from a 4-hour movie. We're left with many other questions too. Among them: how did the men survive their horrible hardships in the mountainous wilderness? why hadn't their scavenger-type diet not given them scurvy or vermin given them diseases? how is it that when they reach Lhasa, after their first baths and shaves in years, they can look so fresh, hale and hearty?
The companions find an entirely new mode of life in Tibet, gradually blend in as much as outsiders could. There is even a flirtation with a handsome lady-tailor, whom Peter later marries. While the Austrians fit in, the movie is careful not to indulge in travelogue picturesqueness or get carried away by the spirituality of the Tibetan religion. Yet the people, their ways of thinking and their beliefs certainly affect the Austrians.
A major influence on Heinrich will come later from his relationship with the Dalai Lama, who is first shown as a child, then in various stages of growth. When the boy is about 12, his mother (played by the sister of the real Dalai Lama!) asks Heinrich to tutor him. His Holiness is bright, witty, enormously curious about Western ways and other matters, and utterly charming.
In spite of much protocol, the growing friendship between Heinrich and his pupil leads to warm informality when the two are alone, in what are arguably the best sections of the movie, especially as these do not veer into sentimentality. Weighing heavily too is the fact that while Heinrich was a POW, he had received a letter from his wife, announcing that she had had his baby, was divorcing him and remarrying. After the European war ended, Heinrich kept sending letters to his son until the latter replied: "You are not my father. Please stop writing me letters."
For the steadily mellowing Heinrich, the transition to considering the young Dalai Lama as a kind of surrogate son was natural, but again this is not Hollywoodishly underlined. The Austrian teaches his fast-learning charge a great deal, from geography and English to the West in general. In wonderfully mundane touches, he even fixes an old car, an old radio, and since his pupil is a film fan and collector, he creates a movie-house for the public. (I wonder where and how Heinrich acquired all those talents).
World War II comes to an end. The Chinese under Mao want to absorb Tibet. Theirs is an enormous army, while the Tibetan forces are pathetically minuscule. The rest is history. China invades, causes one million (if not more) Tibetan deaths, destroys 6,000 lamaseries. Particularly interesting is the parallel between the Nazis and the Communists, a connection probably not lost on Heinrich but not hammered. The war scenes are impressive. Finally Heinrich returns to Vienna in 1951, where he makes his peace with his boy.
Throughout, without engaging in depth into character studies, the film follows the changes in Heinrich. These were true changes, but it is simplistic to speak of redemption. The script does not confuse the road to Lhasa with the road to Damascus. The first part's Heinrich is self-centered, vainglorious, not the most caring of husbands or comrades, but the film does not make him a brute or a villain. The problem with Heinrich actually came up after the movie had been shot, when in the summer of 1997, the German "Stern Magazine" revealed that he had been a member of the Nazi Party, of the SA and the SS. This led to a quick post-production addition. The evolving Heinrich does a brief voice-over of "mea culpa" : "My bad deeds are purified. I've done so many things I regret."
That he was in the Nazi party is to be expected. Hardly any major figures (especially athletes) were not or could get out of being members. The SA/SS business is far more disturbing, but then it could be argued that it makes Harrer's transformation all the stronger.
To shoot the picture in Tibet was out of the question. To film in India (as originally planned) turned out to be impossible for a variety of reasons. But French director Annaud has tackled difficult, original and demanding subjects such as the Oscar-winning colonialist satire "Black and White in Color," the prehistoric "Quest for Fire," "The Bear," "The Lover," "The Name of the Rose."
For "Seven Years" he and his people had to fake their locations in the Argentinian Andes, of lower elevation and different nature. They achieved this splendidly, and in the face of huge logistic problems. Real Tibetans (and yaks) were imported in great numbers. The French Vietnamese production designer At Hoang recreated Tibet painstakingly and convincingly. The stand-in for Nanga Parbat was in Canada's British Columbia. The film's look is so beautiful that one can sense the painfulness of the editing process, where so much fine footage has to be sacrificed, discarded.
Technically ambitious, the movie does not get artificially heavy with the moral progress of its protagonists yet does sketches it out sufficiently and tellingly. The Austrians and especially most Tibetans are shown without big epic touches but rather with affectionate, realistic understanding, There are many humorous bits too. The Tibetans' clapping of hands does not mean applause but chasing away evil spirits; sticking out their tongues means "welcome"; building must proceed without harming any living beings, worms included; and more.
All performances are very good, with the Dalai Lamas, from ages 4 to 14, stealing the show. American heartthrob Brad Pit and British actor's actor David Thewlis play soberly, do not engage in unnecessary theatrics. Their well-rehearsed Teutonic accents are above-average in quality and consistency, but they will not fool listeners who have an ear trained in foreign languages.
About the vanquishing of the Himalayas. The British concentrated on Everest, the Americans on K2, and the Germans on Nanga Parbat and Kanchenjunga. In 1953, Austrian climber Hermann Buhl, of the Austro-German team led by Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, reached the summit of Nanga Parbat.