“Seven Years in Tibet” - Jean-Jacques Annaud (1997)

Seven Years in Tibet (1997) is an historical drama about Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s experiences in India and Tibet from 1938 to 1951.  During this time, Harrer undertook treacherous mountain-climbing efforts in India, became a World War II prisoner of war, and escaped to Tibet, where he had the opportunity to befriend and tutor the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. 

The film, which was directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud and scripted by Becky Johnston, is based on Harrer’s own published report of his experiences, also titled Seven Years in Tibet (1952).  However, Annaud and Johnston apparently made some small, but what I believe were beneficial to the narrative, alterations of Harrer’s account [1].  Jean-Jacques Annaud, by the way, is one of my favourite directors, and I feel he has a special talent for conveying interesting narrative themes through images, such as he did in The Name of the Rose (1986) and The Bear (1988).  And indeed the basic narrative theme of Seven Years in Tibet is actually an issue here, because, although the film was well-received by critics [2,3], I think that some reviewers may have overlooked, what was for me, the film’s main idea.

The film traces Harrer’s remarkable experiences away from Austria stemming from his passion for mountain-climbing, and it covers a period of about thirteen years (1938-1951), the last seven of which were spent in Tibet.  Many people see this film’s stream of events as simply an amazing adventure story.  But I would say there is a more profound issue on display here: the varying cultural attitudes concerning how one addresses life and what one’s ultimate goals are.  Harrer represents one such attitude about life, and the Tibetan people, symbolized by the Dalai Lama, represent an entirely different outlook.  The first half of the story focusses on Harrer’s perspective, and we don’t get to Tibet and the radically contrasting perspective until almost halfway through the film.

I should comment here about the way these events are presented, because the impressionistic nature of the presentation is a key aspect of Annaud’s offering.  Although individual sequences are realistically portrayed, with many colourfully dramatized and detailed backdrops, the sequences shown are essentially dramatic fragments that have been carefully-chosen to present the given characterological theme.  These sequences frequently employ, despite the always colourful background present, adroitly filmed medium-closeup shots that convey important feelings and moods.  And also crucial to this presentation is the placement of Brad Pitt in the lead role.  Pitt’s boyish good looks and natural charm make it easier for the viewer to accept and empathize with his determined character.

The film opens in 1938 in Austria with famous mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt) leaving his pregnant wife to join a team of mountain climbers seeking to reach the summit of the then still-unclimbed mountain Nanga Parbat (26,660, the 9th highest mountain in the world) in British India.  Right away we are introduced to Harrer’s selfish nature.  His wife is very unhappy that her husband won’t be around for the birth of their first child, but Harrer cares little about that.  They part at the train station with just a brief, unfeeling hug.

Harrer is joined on the team by fellow Austrian Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), and when they reach the destined Himalayas, they set out on their treacherous expedition.  The scenes presented here show them in all sorts of harrowing situations on the icy and rugged mountain cliffs.  In all these scenes the contrasting natures of Harrer and Peter stand out.  While Peter is basically cooperative and reasonable, Harrer is shown to be persistently boastful, stubborn, selfish, and uncooperative.  But that is Harrer’s nature – he is single-mindedly goal driven and willing to let the rest of the world be damned. 

However, soon World War II breaks out, and Peter and Harrer, being Austrians and therefore part  of the German state at that time, find themselves arrested by the British authorities and placed in a POW camp in the Himalayan foothills.  The rebellious Harrer then makes repeated solo efforts to break out of this prison, but he is immediately recaptured every time.  And during this period of incarceration, Harrer gets divorce papers from his wife back in Austria that he is instructed to sign.

Eventually, though, the more thoughtful and collaborative Peter comes up with a plan for several of them – Harrer is invited, too – to fool the prison guards and sneak out of the POW camp.  By now it is 1944, and Peter and Harrer manage to hookup and head on foot towards Tibet.  After several more harrowing experiences, the two bedraggled and almost starved escapees manage to stumble their way into Lhasa, the Tibetan Forbidden City.

Lhasa was a city that very few Westerners had ever set foot in, and the two European intruders are graciously welcomed by some of the residents.  One of them, Kungo Tsarong (played by Mako), a local official, invites them to stay in his home.  Another official, Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (BD Wong), also befriends them and commissions the pretty tailor Pema Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) to sew the two men some new Western-style suits for them to wear.  In short order both Peter and Harrer fall in love with the comely Pema.  During one of their ensuing meetings together, Harrer boastfully shows to her some of his scrapbook news clippings touting his mountain-climbing prowess.  Pema responds with perhaps the most revealing comment in the film.  She tells him that these clippings illustrate a great difference between their civilization and hers:
“You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life. 
  While we admire the man who abandons his ego.”
And soon, much to the shock of Harrer, Pema chooses the less-glamorous Peter to be the one for her.  After a few months Pema and Peter are married.

Harrer gets employed by the Tibetan government to carry out some surveying work, but in 1945 he gets news that World War II is over.  So he immediately intends to return to Austria and see his young son, Rolf.  Though he has never seen Rolf, Harrer has been writing heartfelt letters to him for some time.  But now Harrer receives a letter from Rolf rejecting Harrer’s claim of fatherhood and telling him to stop writing any more letters.  

With no family to return to, Harrer decides to stay in Tibet for awhile, and when he receives an invitation to visit the Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace, he jumps at the chance.  Up to now the viewer has only seen occasional glimpses of the Dalai Lama, who is still only a young boy (he was born in 1935), but from this midway point in the film onwards, the interaction between Harrer and the Dalai Lama (here played by Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk) becomes a major narrative focus. 

Despite the worshipful treatment he always gets, the Dalai Lama turns out to be a humble and engaging boy, and he and Harrer get on well with each other from the start.  The Dalai Lama says he likes movies, so he first asks Harrer to design and construct, with the aid of some labourers, a movie theater for him.  Then he asks Harrer to tutor him about the outside world, including lots of things about basic science and culture.  There are a number of engaging scenes here showing these nurturing sessions and the growing bond that develops between this Austrian mountain climber and the young Buddhist lama.

Things are going well for awhile, but in 1949 the new Communist Chinese government chooses to invade Tibet and threaten Tibetan sovereignty.  The traditionally peaceful Tibetans are unprepared and ill-equipped to respond to such a ruthless antagonist, and they can only hope for some sort of negotiated settlement.  However, in 1950 the Chinese military goes ahead and attacks the border town of Chamdo.  Ngawang Jigme, who is leading the hopelessly outmanned Tibetan forces at Chamdo, decides to avoid an inevitable slaughter by surrendering to the Chinese and destroying the Tibetan ammunition dump.  From what we can see in the film, this surrender seems like it was the most prudent action to take, but it stirred controversy among some of the more stubbornly combative elements among the Tibetans.  In particular, Kungo Tsarong confides to Harrer that, had Ngawang Jigme not surrendered and destroyed the ammunition, Tibetan guerillas could have blocked the mountain passes from China into Tibet for years.  Harrer, himself, sees the surrender at Chamdo to have been a humiliating act of betrayal.

When he next sees Ngawang Jigme, Harrer rudely hurls the suit coat that Ngawang Jigme had earlier gifted him back in his face – even though Harrer knows that returning a gift is considered to be a grave insult in Tibetan culture.  This brief scene is important to the film’s theme, because it shows us how far Harrer still was from understanding and adapting himself to the inherent ego-less Tibetan ahimsa culture of non-violence.

Although the resulting treaty that was signed between the Chinese and the Tibetans purported to ensure the Tibetans of their inner (local) sovereignty, the Chinese intentions were far from such magnanimity.  What ensued over the coming years was a genocide [4], as I have remarked in an earlier film review [5]:
“. . . in 1949 the Chinese Communist government invaded Tibet initiating what amounted to a human and culture genocide of horrific proportions.  Over the ensuing years, which include the depredations associated with the Cultural Revolution, one million Tibetans were killed or died of starvation, about one-sixth of the Tibetan population. . . .  And many more Tibetans were subjected to torture and long periods of confinement.  In addition, almost all of the 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed, and almost all of the sacred documents were burned.”
But in 1950 things were still up in the air.  Harrer is pessimistic about the Chinese and tries to get the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet, but the spiritual leader feels he must remain among his people.  But he urges Harrer to go back to Austria and try to be a father to his son.  This Harrer agrees to do, but he promises to stay for the 15-year-old Dalai Lama’s coronation as ruler of Tibet (17 November 1950).  (The Dalai Lama did eventually flee Tibet in 1959.) 

On Harrer’s departure from Tibet in 1951, the Dalai Lama gives him his long-treasured music box.  When Harrer arrives back in Austria, he finally visits his previously unseen son and gives the music box to him.

So by the end of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s impressionistic tale, we see that the viewer has been exposed to three principal male figures with three different outlooks:
  • Heinrich Harrer is single-mindedly goal driven.  He is selfishly interested in achieving his own personal glory, and any cooperation in this connection would most likely only dilute the personal fame he is seeking.  In this sense we could say he is a rational individualist.
  • Peter Aufschnaiter is also rational, but with a wider compass to his thinking.  He is a principled cooperator willing to engage in teamwork for the joint benefit of all his collaborators.  We could call him a progressive liberal.
  • The 14th Dalai Lama is cordially enthusiastic about life, but he embraces altruism.  He wants to learn as much as possible about the wonders of the world, but he always wants to stay within the bounds Buddhism’s (as well as Jainism’s and Hinduism’s) notion of ahimsa – never injure or kill other living beings. 
These three figures learn from their encounter, but in different ways.  The Eastern host, the Dalai Lama, learns practical things that rational Western science and technology has discovered about the world.   On the other hand, the two Western visitors, Harrer and Aufschnaiter, both learn about Eastern ways of cooperative engagement with the world, but to varying degrees.  Certainly Harrer’s hot-headed expression of contempt for Ngawang Jigme’s attempt to avoid the needless loss of life that took place late in the piece suggests to me that Harrer still had much to learn about Eastern ways.

The production values in Seven Years in Tibet are excellent across the board.  For example,  the acting in the film, even in the face of all those medium closeups, is superb throughout.  I particularly liked the performance of BD Wong in the role of Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme.  His thoughtful countenance is just right for a person facing the critical situations associated with this role.

As a final comment, I will mention that some readers might suggest that Harrer’s selfish Western perspective is the natural one for animal and human survival, and that structuring our society in a way that accommodates pervasive selfishness is the best approach.  The Eastern emphasis on altruism, they would say, is just a religious fantasy and not natural for human behaviour.  But recent scientific investigations have demonstrated that altruism is a natural and instinctive feature of human behaviour [6].  Even children under the age of two years old, and before they have received any moral training from adults, instinctively display altruistic behaviour when they are wordlessly presented with situations where altruistic behaviour is an option [7].  So I would say that the best approach for all of us is to help find the ideal combination of Western rationalism and Eastern altruism and propagate it to everyone all over the world.  This is a project to which I believe the 14th Dalai Lama has dedicated his whole life, and it continues to this day.

  1.  “Comparisons between the film and the book”, “Seven Years in Tibet (1997 film)”, Wikipedia, (25 March 2020).  
  2. Janet Maslin, “A Challenge for Brad Pitt: Trying to Make a Nazi Charming”, The New York Times, (8 October 1997).   
  3. Peter Travers, “Seven Years in Tibet”, “Rolling Stone”, (8 October 1997).   
  4. Maura Moynihan, “Genocide in Tibet”, The Washington Post, (25 January 1998).   
  5. The Film Sufi, “‘Journey to Enlightenment’ - Matthieu Ricard (1995)”, The Film Sufi, (7 July 2019).   
  6. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015), pp. 208-224.
  7. Ibid.

No comments: