Ethics & Public Policy Center

Seven Years in Tibet

Published in EPPC Online on October 1, 1997



Seven Years in Tibet from Tri-Star, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, stars the egregious Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber in the Himalayas who is interned by the British in India as an enemy alien at the outbreak of the Second World War. He and his fellow Teuton climber, Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) manage to escape and make their way to Tibet, where they settle down and are accepted in spite of a deep local suspicion of and hostility towards foreigners. Peter marries and Heinrich becomes a tutor and companion to the young Dalai Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuck). Heinrich stays until the Chinese invade and take over the country, then he returns to Austria to try to establish a relationship with the son who was born shortly after he left in 1939 and whom he has never seen.

The story has potentially epic dimensions. Its point is to show the arrogant and solitary Heinrich ( “no wonder you’re always alone,” says Peter to him: “no one can stand your miserable company” ), who in real life seems to have been a dedicated Nazi, becoming gradually humanized, first by his friendship with Peter and second by the example of the gentle people among whom he finds himself. It is a land, he writes his young son Rolf, where people “walk long distances to holy places” believing that this “purifies the soul of bad deeds. The greater the distance of the journey, the greater the depth of the purification.” He, of course, has walked a very long distance from his prison camp in India, but he and Peter are accepted by the Tibetans partly because of admiration for their amazing feat in so footing it.

Yet, despite the glorious scenery, the film is a bore. Its ends up passing too lightly over the conflict between Heinrich and Peter and trivializing it so that it can get to the big, world-historical, geo-political conflict which might confirm its epic status. This is the Chinese invasion and subjugation of Tibet. It is clear to the meanest intelligence that the Tibetans haven’t the slightest chance against the Red Chinese Army, but Heinrich, especially, is meant to get rather a fillip to his credibility by what is actually a very cheap tone of self-righteous moral indignation toward his former friend and Tibetan patron who seeks an accommodation with the Chinese. Of course, it is not Heinrich who will suffer the consequences of the splendid and doomed defiance he recommends. He hightails it back to Austria and takes up mountain climbing again. Talk about anti-climax!

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