'Seven Years In Tibet' Seems About That Long In The Theater, Too
By Stacey Richter
SEVEN YEARS IN Tibet is an endless movie that feels like it was shot in real time. Exotic vistas, quaint natives and Brad Pitt are all pretty things to gaze at for short periods, but as this two-hour-plus movie headed into the home stretch, all I could do was look at my watch and pray for it to be over. "Serving others is my path to liberation," explains the Dalai Lama near the much awaited end. "Ah," I thought sagely, "and the rolling credits will be ours."
Pitt, sporting a surfer bleach job, plays Heinrich Harrer, a bratty mountain climber who leaves Austria in 1939 to scale a peak in the Himalayas. Oh yeah, he's also a Nazi. With typical Hollywood crassness, the film takes pains to point out that Harrer is a "good" Nazi: He reluctantly accepts the flag of the Reich when an ideologue asks him to plant it on top of the mountain, rolling his eyes with annoyance. What a guy! And it's not only Nazis who annoy him; he doesn't like his wife or his fellow climbers either, including Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), head of the expedition.
In fact, Harrer doesn't really like anybody, and tiffs quickly fester on the climb. Anyway, the guys don't have much luck scaling the peak because they keep slipping and falling back--a mini-narrative that's repeated compulsively in this movie. Seven Years in Tibet is dedicated to the aesthetic of repetition. If you want to run out to the snack bar, go ahead, whatever just happened will happen again.
Then Britain declares war on Germany, and when the expedition returns to base camp they're promptly tossed into a POW camp, where Harrer tries to escape, over and over, for years. Eventually, he and Aufschnaiter do escape to wander the mountains of Tibet for years and years until their toes get cold and turn blue. Have I mentioned that Pitt and Thewlis converse in English, but with German accents? The two finally make their way to the forbidden city of Lhasa, where the young Dalai Lama resides. Harrer and the Dalai Lama strike up an improbable friendship that's spiritually enriching to both. Aufschnaiter gets himself a native girl.
Seven Years in Tibet is based on a true story, but who cares? The fact that a Nazi really went to Tibet and made friends with the Dalai Lama isn't intrinsically any more interesting than a made-up story, especially when any sense of historical interest or genuine experience has been ground smooth in the mill of commercialism. With the spirit of Leni Riefenstahl nodding happily in the background, the story blithely dwells on Harrer's achievements as a climber while glossing over his Nazi past. And just the thought that Hollywood would try to portray a spiritual awakening with Brad Pitt as its vehicle is itself so repellent that the entire project of watching this movie is degrading.
Instead of looking at the fascinating moral questions that Harrer's life story raises, Seven Years in Tibet, with typical sentimentality, focuses on Harrer's affection for the son he's never met. The Dalai Lama is himself a young boy, and some filial love gets tossed around between the two; in the process, Harrer learns to be a nicer guy, and a better father--it all ends up looking like a seven-year version of a weekend with the Promise Keepers.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this movie is the travelogue-porno style in which it is shot. Beautifully lit architecture, billowing curtains, and happy natives pictured mostly at sunrise and sunset (they all speak English with British accents!) combine to portray the Tibetans and their culture as unfathomably exotic, innocent and totally apart from us viewers, who are left identifying with the Nazi protagonist. It's not surprising that cinematographer Robert Fraisse's first films were The Story of O and Emmanuelle. The softcore style has been adopted here to tell the story of a subjugated, colonized people in a way that keeps them safely separate from us--as beautiful objects to be admired.
The only Tibetan character portrayed with any depth is the Dalai Lama (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), a sweet 14-year-old kid who is also wise. Alas, he doesn't turn up until the last hour of the movie, and by then the karma of Seven Years in Tibet is already hopelessly ruined.
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