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Redemption, Hollywood Style

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by Sally Ogle Davis

October 9, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Let me be direct and come to the point right off the mark:

"Seven Years in Tibet," appropriately filmed in Argentina -- whereold Nazis go to be rehabilitated or to die, whichever comes first --is a turgid piece of filmmaking and as dishonest as, well, "TheDevil's Own," Brad Pitt's last outing on film.

The story of Austrian athlete Heinrich Harrer's sojourn on theroof of the world, where he became a tutor to the Dalai Lama --pronounced by Pitt, for reasons known only to his voice coach, as the"Dolly Lomo"-- would not have raised a schilling from the moguls hadit not been that golden boy Brad found something familiar in thisstory of a self-absorbed fellow striving for meaning.

New Age interest in Tibet, the Dalai Lama and Pitt, notnecessarily in that order, may bring the multitudes to the multiplex,but I doubt it.

Those who do go will see some very pretty scenery -- the Andes notthe Himalayas -- some fine acting by the wondrous young man fromBhutan who plays the Dalai Lama, and a picture of a singularlyunpleasant Austrian climber, selfish, egotistic, banal to the pointof boring -- but a Nazi? Bite your tongue.

The news broke first this summer in Stern magazine: Harrer, itseemed, had been a sergeant in the SS, a fact he tried to slough offas a career move. He had also -- and this was harder to explain away-- joined the SA storm troopers in 1933, when he had to breakAustrian law to do so. He had even applied to no less a personagethan Heinrich Himmler for permission to marry, providing properdocumentation to prove that he and his future wife had impeccableAryan credentials.

Following publication of these interesting historical facts, therewas so much egg on Hollywood faces that you could have servedbreakfast for 500.

The filmmakers Mandalay Entertainment, French directorJean-Jacques Annaud and Pitt engaged in some rapid damage control,hastily adding voice-over commentary that would, they said,acknowledge Harrer's party membership.

This is what they added: As Chinese troops storm their way intoTibet, mowing down the pathetically outgunned Tibetan troops, Pitt'sHarrer says: "It reminds me of the aggressiveness of my owncountry.... I shudder to recall how at one time I was no differentfrom these Chinese."

Maybe I need one of those hearing-assist devices provided bycinemas these days, but I didn't hear the word Nazi in thereanywhere.

During the course of the action, when he is congratulated on someGerman athletic achievement, Pitt's Harrer answers, "Thank you, butI'm Austrian."

When the British show up upon the outbreak of war to arrest him asan enemy alien, he protests: "You don't understand. I'm Austrian; Ihave nothing to do with your silly war."

This is known as the "Sound of Music" defense: We Austrians weretoo busy climbing mountains, picking edelweiss and being gemutlich tobe involved in any of that Third Reich unpleasantness.

A swastika flag is handed to Pitt/Harrer as he climbs on board thetrain taking him to the Himalayas. He grabs it with all theenthusiasm of a lawyer being served with a subpoena. And, strangely,he seems to have left at home this time the SS lapel pin Harrer worewhen he was photographed standing next to Adolf Hitler at a receptionin 1938.

Director Annaud says that he was aware that German climbers, theperfect exemplars of the ubermenschen, and therefore wonderfulpropaganda vehicles, wore swastikas on their climbing bags. So whereare they in the film?

On a visit to the real Harrer in his Austrian home, Pitt, with allthe sense of history, not to mention sensitivity, of a Hollywoodscreen idol, wrote in the guest book in the impressive museum Harrerbuilt to his own glory: "It's an honor to sit in your home. It's anhonor to share in your life. We will not let you down."

Director Annaud says that he discussed Harrer's past with Pitt.

"From the beginning, he understood he had to play a veryunpleasant character," Annaud says. "That's why he dyed his hair andwent for a Germanic accent which is perceived as quite unpleasant."

Oh, I get it. This is a new form of movie shorthand. From theyellow hair and the phony accent, we're supposed to know that he's aNazi without having to be told. So when Pitt's accent disappearscompletely, by about September 1942 by my reckoning, are we to assumethat he is no longer a Nazi or simply that Pitt is no Meryl Streep?

British actor David Thewlis, who plays Harrer's climbingcompanion, Peter Aufschnaiter, went along on the same visit toHarrer. Thewlis, who works most of the time in a world far removedfrom the dream factories of Hollywood and, consequently, seems to bethe only person in this whole enterprise who is remotely in touchwith reality, had this to say about the mountaineer:

"He was a very garrulous old man who talked so much, you couldn'tget a word in edgeways. He's quite proud of himself and has built ahuge museum as a monument to himself, which he loves to show you.When [Annaud] asked him how he felt when Germany was defeated in thewar, he never quite answered the question. That's why I wasn'tsurprised about the more recent revelations of his dubious past."

At the end of the film, Pitt is shown climbing a mountain with theson with whom he has recently reunited, planting a Tibetan flag onthe summit. This is redemption, Hollywood style. In real life, PeterHarrer was repeatedly rejected by his father and quite sensibly, inhis turn, rejected mountain climbing and went to work for Swisstelevision.

The story of the Dalai Lama and Tibet's struggle against theChinese is a wonderful subject for a movie, but "Seven Years inTibet" isn't it. It's as phony as Pitt's accent and Harrer's redemption.

Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based free-lancewriter whose work has appeared in magazines and newspapers in NorthAmerica and around the world.

 

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