Seven Years in Tibet (1997 film)

Seven Years in Tibet (1997 film)

Infobox Film | name = Seven Years in Tibet

caption = "Seven Years in Tibet" film poster.
director = Jean-Jacques Annaud
producer = Jean-Jacques Annaud
Iain Smith
John H. Williams
writer = Heinrich Harrer (book)
Becky Johnston
starring = Brad Pitt
David Thewlis
Danny Denzongpa
music = John Williams
cinematography =
editing =
distributor = TriStar Pictures
released = October 8, 1997 (USA)
runtime = 139 min.
country = Argentina
language = English
budget = $70,000,000 US (est.)
imdb_id = 0120102

"Seven Years in Tibet" is a 1997 film based on the book of the same name written by Austrian mountaineer and onetime SS Nazi Heinrich Harrer based on his experiences in Tibet between 1944 and 1951 during the Second World War, the interim period, and the Chinese People's Liberation Army invasion in 1950. The film was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starred Brad Pitt and David Thewlis. The score was composed by John Williams and features cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"Seven Years in Tibet" tells the story of how Austrians Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, having been imprisoned by the British while mountaineering in the north of India at the beginning of World War II in 1939, eventually escape across the border into Tibet in 1944 and cross the treacherous high plateau. There in Tibet, after initially being ordered to return to India, they are welcomed at Lhasa and become acquainted with an unfamiliar way of life. Harrer is introduced to the Dalai Lama, who is still a boy, and he becomes a tutor and then close friend to the young spiritual leader during his time in Lhasa. Harrer and Aufschnaiter remain in the country until the Chinese invasion in 1950.


The introduction shows the young Dalai Lama receiving gifts from Tibetan monks. One gift he receives, an ornate music box, has special meaning to him, as he is still a young child.

The progress of Heinrich Harrer through India and Tibet on his trek across the high plateau to Lhasa is interwoven with the story of the young Dalai Lama growing into an 8 year old boy who becomes the spiritual leader of Tibet, with a thirst for western knowledge and later into an adolescent. The Dalai Lama is portrayed by three different actors as he grows up.

Harrer (Pitt) and his pregnant wife Ingrid (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) are briefly shown being driven to the train station in Graz, for Harrer's departure on an expedition to Nanga Parbat. It becomes evident that Ingrid resents his departure. At the station Harrer barges through the crowds, dragging his wife by the hand, and shows his resentment of Peter Aufschnaiter's selection as leader of the expedition.

Harrer at the train station in 1939 appears hostile to the Nazi Party, taking their flag with reluctance. The real-life Heinrich Harrer admitted he had Nazi sympathies at the time which he later regretted. Harrer's arrogance and self-sufficiency become apparent as he sits by himself on the train journey to India.

The expedition

Harrer, Aufschnaiter, and the expedition group begin climbing Nanga Parbat. Harrer falls, injuring his leg, but hides his injuries from the group. Harrer places Aufschnaiter's life in danger by his inability to pull him safely up a cliff due to the pain of his injury; this worsens their relationship. After an avalanche, Aufschnaiter orders the group to retreat back to the base, despite Harrer's determination to reach the summit.

While descending from the mountain, Harrer encounters a Tibetan traveller who gives him a photograph of the Dalai Lama for his protection. On reaching the base, they learn that Germany has invaded Poland, and they are arrested by the British and taken by truck to Dehra Dun prison camp. Harrer writes to Ingrid in Austria, telling of his capture; she responds with divorce papers and tells him she wishes to re-marry. Harrer's son Rolf is now two. Harrer makes several unsuccessful escape attempts. Eventually Aufschnaiter manages to steal a British uniform and several of the prisoners escape. The members of the group go separate ways, with Harrer heading for northern India.

On reaching northern India in 1943, Harrer steals food from a religious offering, but is later violently sick from food poisoning. The rest of the group, apart from Aufschnaiter, have been recaptured. Aufschnaiter plans to travel to China to find work.

They cross the border into Tibet and set out east, but are met by two men on horseback who tell them they must turn back. Aufschnaiter attempts to speak to them in Tibetan, which he learned while in prison, but is told that foreigners are strictly forbidden in Tibet. On reaching the next town and requesting food, they are confronted by the same two men. They learn that one of them is the garpon, leader of the province, and that the reason that foreigners are forbidden from Tibet is that there is a threat of attack from outside forces. Harrer attempts to appease the garpon by offering him the photo of the Dalai Lama, but they are forced to return towards India, escorted by two guards who are told to shoot them if they try to escape.

Harrer and Aufschnaiter are escorted to a small town near the border with India where they trade what little they have in return for food. Harrer persuades Aufschnaiter to trade a watch that he received from his father for climbing Mont Blanc. Seeing one of the guards trying on a Chinese army uniform, he offers him his "German army boots" while actually giving him crampons. The guard takes a liking to the "boots" and puts them on. Harrer and Aufschnaiter escape to the mountainside where the guards, clad in the heavy crampons and uniforms, are unable to follow.

While recovering from the escape, Aufschnaiter discovers that Harrer has deceived him about not having a watch to trade, and is furious at Harrer's selfishness. Harrer, first indifferent, after a while begs forgiveness, offering Aufschnaiter all three of his watches and his wedding ring. Aufschnaiter declines the ring, but Harrer insists, stating "I didn't deserve it either." The two then start on their way over the high Tibetan plateau to Lhasa.

The arduous journey to Lhasa (including footage secretly captured by director Jean Jacques Annaud in Tibet) causes Harrer to reflect on his son Rolf and the Tibetan custom that the longer and more difficult the journey in a pilgrimage, the greater the repentance of past sins. High in the Himalayas, Harrer and Aufschnaiter are abducted by bandits, but they escape on horseback. Harrer and Aufschnaiter are forced to kill their horses and eat the meat raw.

In Lhasa

The pair encounter pilgrims travelling to Lhasa. They are only allowed to join the group after saying they have "special permission" and showing one of the pilgrims the instruction sheet from their first aid kit. As the Tibetan they show it to cannot read English, he allows the two men to join the pilgrims.

In Lhasa, Harrer and Aufschnaiter cover their faces to avoid recognition as foreigners. When they try to steal food, Kungo Tsarong, played by Mako, seeing the condition of the travellers, invites them to stay at his home.

Tsarong asks for permission for the explorers to remain in Lhasa. The conversation is overheard by the secretary to the regent, Ngawang Jigme (B. D. Wong). Jigme offers Harrer and Aufschnaiter a gift of new clothes, and at the guest quarters of Tsarong's home a Tibetan tailor named Pema Lhaki arrives to measure the two men. Not having seen a woman for several years, they immediately attempt to win her affections.

Settled in Lhasa, Harrer continues his attempts to impress Pema Lhaki by demonstrating his climbing techniques and showing a scrapbook containing his achievements back in Austria in skiing and his gold medal at the 1936 Winter Olympics. Lhaki is seemingly unimpressed, stating that climbing is a foolish pleasure and informing Harrer that Western civilization is very different from Tibet, where a man is more respected for abandoning his ego.

Harrer, still interested in the Tibetan tailor, rips out a jacket pocket as an excuse to visit her and have it repaired. Harrer enters the store to find Aufschnaiter already there. The three go ice skating together, and Harrer realises that Aufschnaiter has succeeded in winning the Tibetan woman's love.

The foreigners have been observed through a telescope by the young Dalai Lama from the nearby Potala Palace. Ngawang Jigme visits the Chinese embassy in Tibet and becomes acquainted with the Chinese ambassador. He has been sent by the Tibetan government to persuade Chinese officials to stop sending financial gifts to Tibetan monasteries as they are becoming suspicious of Chinese intentions. The Chinese official hints that Jigme could gain advancement by offering his services to the Chinese.

By May 1945, Harrer visits Aufschnaiter and Pema Lhaki to congratulate them on their marriage. They discuss the activities of the Chinese Communist Party. Lhaki asks Harrer about his life in Lhasa, and he reveals he is very busy and moved out of Tsarong's house five months ago into his own settlement. But he has not found love, and shows his resentment over Aufschnaiter's marriage.

Returning to Lhasa, where he has been hired to survey the city, he is told by Ngawang Jigme that World War II is now over. Heinrich immediately begins packing for home when Kungo's elderly wife arrives with a letter for him from Austria. The letter is from his son Rolf, telling him to stop writing. A depressed Harrer receives another letter, this time from the `Great Mother` of the Dalai Lama.

Harrer and the Dalai Lama

In a beautiful Deyangsar courtyard, Harrer greets the "Great Mother" (played by Jetsun Pema, the sister of the living 14th Dalai Lama). She gives him instructions on how to behave when in the presence of the Lama, who has learned of Harrer's presence in Lhasa and would like to meet him personally.

Harrer enters the interior halls of the Potala Palace. Turning into a dark chamber, he sees the mysterious Dalai Lama seated on a throne at the end. Entering behind the Great Mother, he bows repeatedly, much to the amusement of the young Lama. Harrer walks up to the throne, and the Dalai Lama plays with Harrer's mop of blond hair, calling him a "yellow head". Shortly afterwards, the Dalai Lama asks the surprised Harrer if he can build him a movie cinema at the palace. He also wants Harrer to teach him about western civilization and become his private tutor during the building process.

Harrer immediately begins building the theatre, but encounters a problem, as the workers refuse to harm the worms in the earth while digging, believing that each could have been their mother or a loved one in a past life. Harrer again visits the Dalai Lama, who emphasizes that religious concerns are paramount, and that he must honor them and find a solution. As the movie house is built, Harrer begins tutoring the boy in world geography and the ways of the west.

Harrer and Aufschnaiter with a number of important monks and ministers attend a festival near a river, where they meet Ngawang Jigme to celebrate his promotion to the position of minister. At a Christmas party, Harrer returns Aufschnaiter's old watch. Harrer had come across it by chance at a shop and retrieved it as a gift to Aufschnaiter, along with a note thanking him for his friendship. Soon afterwards, a Tibetan turns on the radio and a Chinese announcer proclaims that they plan to invade Tibet. The party breaks up, and an evil omen at night casts a shadow on what is to come.

At a meeting with the cabinet, the regent states that Tibet recognizes no foreign sovereign and banishes all Chinese officials from Tibet, including those at the Chinese embassy. As the crisis grows, the Dalai Lama has a terrible nightmare of Chinese atrocities near the Tibetan border in Taktser, his birthplace, with monasteries being burnt down and monks being forced to kill each other. He seeks comfort with Heinrich Harrer, who tells him it was a dream, only to find soon after that the Chinese have indeed crossed the Tibetan frontier, burnt Taktser, and are advancing.

Impending war

Three Chinese generals fly to Lhasa to speak with the Dalai Lama, and against Harrer's request Ngawang Jigme raises the Chinese flag, saying that Tibet should embrace the enemy if it cannot defend itself. Monks have spent many days creating a sand mandala to welcome the generals, who show their disrespect by wiping their feet on it. Despite the Dalai Lama's speech to them that Tibet is a peace-loving nation, the head of the Chinese delegation dismisses religion as "poison", and war soon breaks out on the Tibetan frontier at Chamdo.

Ngawang Jigme is sent to Chamdo with a small Tibetan army to defend against the Chinese attack, but many Tibetans are killed. Jigme makes the decision to surrender after just 11 days and then blows up the Tibetan ammunitions dump, destroying any hope of a counter-attack. During a treaty signing in Lhasa, Kungo Tsarong tells Harrer that if Jigme had not destroyed the weapons supply, Tibetan guerillas could have held the mountain passes, buying time to appeal to other nations for help. As the Chinese take control of Tibet and the Chinese flag flies at Lhasa, Harrer visits Ngawang Jigme to condemn him for his surrender, and insults him by returning the jacket he received as a gift.

Despite the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama, now fifteen years old, is formally enthroned as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. Harrer pays a final visit to the Lama on top of the Potala and prays with him. As he leaves the palace, he is given a gift of the music box which was shown to be so dear to the Dalai Lama at the beginning of the film.

Return to Austria

Harrer bids farewell to Aufschnaiter and Pema and returns to Austria in 1951 to visit his son Rolf, now a young boy. Although his son initially refuses to see him, Harrer leaves the musical box as a gift for him and watches him lovingly from the crack in the door. In the film finale, Harrer gradually comes to know the son he has thought about all the years while he was in Tibet and trains him like himself in the art of climbing mountains. Having reached the top of a mountain, Harrer is shown with a Tibetan flag planted beside him at the peak.


*Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer
*David Thewlis as Peter Aufschnaiter
*B.D. Wong as Ngawang Jigme
*Mako as Kungo Tsarong
*Danny Denzongpa as Regent
*Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė as Ingrid Harrer
*Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk as Dalai Lama, 14 Years Old
*Lhakpa Tsamchoe as Pema Lhaki
*Jetsun Pema as The Great Mother
*Ama Ashe Dongtse as Tashi
*Sonam Wangchuk as Dalai Lama, 8 Years Old
*Dorjee Tsering as Dalai Lama, 4 Years Old
*Ric Young as General Chang Jing Wu
*Ngawang Chojor as Lord Chamberlain (as Ven. Ngawang Chojor)
*Duncan Fraser as British Officer
*Benedick Blythe as Nazi Official
*Wolfgang Tonninger as Hans Lobenhoffer

Comparisons between the film and the book

There are a number of significant differences between the original book and the 1997 film.

In the film, Harrer is portrayed as extremely reluctant to associate himself with the Nazi Party, referring to himself as "Austrian" several times and calling the war shameful. However, in real life Harrer was a sergeant in the Sturmabteilung (SA) in Austria in 1933. Later, in 1938, he joined the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Nazi Party.

Harrer in the film is hailed as a 'German hero', and replies "Thank you, but I'm Austrian". To have said that in 1939 would have been extremely bold, since Austria had been part of Greater Germany since the Anschluss of April 1938. [Shirer, William L., "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", Chapter 13. Shirer says of the plebiscite "it took a very brave Austrian to vote No".] Harrer says nothing about any such remark.

A major theme of the film is Heinrich Harrer's change from an arrogant, self-obsessed man, to one very much enlightened by the Tibetan culture - yet in his book Harrer has no such evolution of character. ["Seven Years in Tibet"] The book also makes no mention of a Tibetan wife for Aufschnaiter, nor of a final break with Ngawang Jigme.

The film makes his son a key theme, but in the book Harrer does not mention his wife or son. He had in fact been married and divorced, as the film shows. But his ex-wife's new husband was killed in the war and Harrer's son was raised by his ex-wife's mother. ["Beyond Seven Years in Tibet", by Heinrich Harrer] Harrer in his autobiography gives details of his contact with his son, but nothing to support what the film shows. In the book Harrer says there was little to tie him to home as one of the reasons for staying in Tibet and not returning to Europe. ["Seven Years in Tibet" by Heinrich Harrer]

The pre-invasion visit of Chinese Communist negotiators to Lhasa, arriving at an airfield constructed by Tibetans, and their departure for China after a brief conference with their Tibetan counterparts -- including the desecration of the sand mandala as well as the "religion is poison" remark--- as depicted in the film, does not occur in the book or in any of the numerous histories that have been written about the matter. There was no air link until Lhasa Gonggar Airport was constructed in 1956 - when the Dalai Lama visited Beijing in 1954, he used the still-incomplete road system. [Dalai Lama, "Freedom in Exile", Hodder & Stoughton 1990]

The whole sequence of negotiations and the installation of the Dalai Lama as ruler are out of sequence. Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama was enthroned as the temporal leader of Tibet on 17 November 1950. A delegation was sent to Beijing and agreed the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. Meantime the Dalai Lama left Lhasa and took refuge on the border with India and Sikkim. The Dalai Lama disliked the agreement, but returned to Lhasa and for several years tried to work within its terms. ["Seven Years in Tibet"]

The film shows shocking violence by the Chinese Army against Tibetans, including helpless non-combatants. This contradicts what Harrer himself says::In 1910 the invading Chinese had plundered and burned when they came to Lhasa, and the inhabitants were paralized with fear that these outrages would be repeated. Nevertheless it is fair to say that during the present war the Chinese troops had showed themselves disciplined and tolerant. and Tibetans who had been captured and then released were saying how well they had been treated. ("Seven Years in Tibet", end of Chapter 16.)

Film controversy

As the film was being released, it was condemned by the government of the People's Republic of China who claimed that Communist Chinese military officers were intentionally shown as impolite and arrogant, brutalizing the local people. The Dalai Lama, regarded as a traitor and an imperialist tool by the PRC government, was portrayed positively in the film. Because of these features, it was banned from being shown in China. [Canada Tibet Committee: [ "Hollywood's New China Syndrome (The Los Angeles Times) 'Red Corner,' 'Seven Years in Tibet' and 'Kundun' take the country's human rights record to task, especially regarding its treatment of Tibet. How will the Chinese react to filmdom's scrutiny?"] ] Failed verification|date=August 2008 Furthermore, the director and the starring actors Brad Pitt and David Thewlis were banned from ever entering the Chinese mainland. [ [ Brad Pitt biography at] ] [ [|70493 David Thewlis biography at] ]

Also in dispute is the use of "Chinese Embassy in Tibet" and the "occupation of Tibet", considering the disputes over the sovereignty of Tibet. It is said very clearly in the film that foreigners are not allowed to enter Tibet.

While most of the film was shot in Argentina, two years after the film's release director Jean-Jacques Annaud confirmed that two crews secretly shot footage for the film in Tibet. While the PRC government strongly discouraged the production and release of "Seven Years in Tibet", Annaud was able to put about 20 minutes of actual footage from Tibet into the final film. Other footage was shot in Nepal. [Canada Tibet Committee: [ Director Secretly Filmed In Tibet] ]

Pitt was listed as third in a BBC poll of the all-time worst film accents. [ [ BBC News | Entertainment | Connery has worst film accent] ]

ee also

*"Seven Years in Tibet" (1953)
*"Beyond Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During, and After", Heinrich Harrer's full autobiography (2007)


External links

*imdb title|id=0120102|title=Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
*imdb title|id=0405304|title=Seven Years in Tibet (1956)
* [ The Wild Things of God: Seven Years in Tibet]

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