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Friday, October 10, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Tibet' Missed The Biggest Secret

AP

LOS ANGELES - Heinrich Harrer had a lot of deep, dark secrets. The makers of the new film "Seven Years in Tibet" unearthed most of them - except one.

An Austrian mountaineer who befriended the young Dalai Lama, Harrer also was a more fervent Nazi than his memoirs suggest.

The revelation about his hidden past only mildly surprised the writer and director of "Seven Years in Tibet," who realized from the start that what makes Harrer's life worth knowing is how much of it is unknown.

"The film is definitely what is missing in his book," says Jean-Jacques Annaud, who directed Brad Pitt as Harrer in "Seven Years in Tibet."

"What fascinated me were the secrets," said Annaud. "I wanted to invent what Harrer was not saying. The book is very interesting. But the man never talks about his past, he never talks about his roots, he never talks about his family, he never talks about his Germany."

The movie was adapted by screenwriter Becky Johnston from Harrer's 1953 autobiography of the same name.

A trek to Tibet

One of Europe's most accomplished alpine explorers, Harrer was trying to climb the Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat when World War II began. Captured and imprisoned by British troops stationed in India, Harrer escaped from the POW camp and trekked to Tibet. Once there, he tutored the young Dalai Lama.

Harrer wrote his memoir after fleeing Tibet's holy city of Lhasa in the wake of China's invasion.

Most of the talk about "Seven Years in Tibet" has focused on news, published after the movie finished filming, that Harrer joined the Nazi party and was a gym instructor in its elite SS after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. But Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter, said that Harrer was not involved in politics and was innocent of wrongdoing.

In fact, Harrer dedicated his life to human rights and Tibetan independence after the war was over. Several Tibetan support organizations are using the film's debut to galvanize opposition to China's nearly 50-year occupation.

Dialogue added

Annaud and Johnston added two lines of dialogue after filming was completed to reflect Harrer's party affiliations. Toward the movie's end, when Chinese troops are bearing down in Lhasa, Harrer says in one of the new lines, "I shudder to recall, how once, long ago, I embraced the same beliefs. How, at one time, I was no different from these intolerant Chinese."

For Annaud and Johnston, the line is emblematic of the entire film - an imagined personal statement from a man who rarely revealed any feelings.

"When you read the book, it doesn't give you much of a sense of who he is. . . . He never talks about anything of a personal nature, and it's totally humorless," Johnston says. "You have to fill it out with an emotional profile - his character should be changed by what he goes through."

To make that evolution cinematic, the filmmakers invented a life for Harrer that proved oddly prescient. In one bit of artistic license, Harrer abandons a pregnant wife when he first sets out on the expedition to India's Nanga Parbat summit. Harrer is then haunted by the family he has left behind, a family that retaliates by disowning Harrer as both husband and father.

It is this loss, in part, that compels Harrer to befriend the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama.

"I told Harrer, `You are going to be very disappointed in some parts of the screenplay. We show you as a despicable man to show this transformation,' " Annaud says. What Johnston and Annaud later found out was that this concocted back story and a variety of other "fictitious twists" were actually true or close to the truth.

Not a whitewashing

Johnston says "Seven Years in Tibet" does not aim to sanitize Harrer and his past.

"People think we have turned a Nazi into a hero," she says. "These people haven't seen the film. I think I've taken him and tried to humanize him, find the complexity in him. I just look for the flaws. What he does is accept responsibility for everything he ran away from."

A `stupid mistake'

In a July interview in Austria, Harrer said the movie depicts him as "an unlikable Nazi" who is changed by Tibetan Buddhism. He called his Nazi membership a "stupid mistake" and an "ideological error."

But some people - including those who have seen the film - say "Seven Years in Tibet" doesn't go far enough.

"The on-screen Harrer goes a lot further in his denunciation of his Nazi past than the real Harrer ever did," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But, he said, "the story would have been so much more powerful, so much more believable, if Harrer had just told the truth. . . . You're just kind of left wondering, `Well, who was this guy? What was motivating him before? And how was he challenged and transformed?' "

Annaud hopes that moviegoers leave "Seven Years in Tibet" not puzzled about Nazis but intrigued by Buddhism.

"It's almost like a mirror of Western culture, but in reverse," he says of the religion. "The values are completely opposite. We are told we have to gather as much material goods as possible. But in Tibet, happiness can only be achieved by disdain of fame and success, of disowning all worldly goods. A little dose of their spirituality might be good to revise our values."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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