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'Tibet' Revised to Stress Character's Nazi Past

Movies: In post-production, director adds dialogue making it clear the film's protagonist had ties to Hitler's party.

August 15, 1997|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In response to the recent disclosure about the Nazi party affiliation of the central character in TriStar Pictures' fall release "Seven Years in Tibet," director Jean-Jacques Annaud has altered dialogue in two sections of the movie.

The $70-million film, scheduled to open Oct. 8, tells the story of Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt), an Austrian mountaineer who tutored the Dalai Lama during the 1940s and chronicled human rights abuses in Tibet. The German magazine Stern revealed in June that Harrer voluntarily became a Nazi storm trooper in 1933 and a sergeant in Hitler's elite SS five years later. The magazine also reported that Harrer gave proof that he and his bride-to-be were of Aryan lineage when asking SS leader Heinrich Himmler's permission to marry in 1938.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center had charged that casting Pitt into the role of a onetime Nazi could turn the man into a hero and inadvertently whitewash the legacy of the Third Reich. While Harrer's Nazi sympathies were evident upon reading his book, Annaud has said, the extent of his involvement was never apparent before the shoot.

"I'm glad that I had the time in post-production to make changes to reflect the recent revelations," Annaud said via fax from London, where he is putting the final touches on the movie.

One scene, shot in Argentina in January, shows a party member thrusting a Nazi flag into Harrer's hand at a train station as the character he plays is about to leave on a Nazi-sponsored mountaineering expedition. Instead of referring to him as "the man who planted our flag at the top of the Eiger," as originally scripted, the dialogue now calls him "a distinguished member of the National Socialist Party."

In another scene, Harrer is watching Chinese generals arrive in Tibet before the invasion. In the original, the character drew an analogy between their subjugation of a weaker people with the atrocities perpetrated by his countrymen.

In the latest version, he takes on personal responsibility: "I shudder to recall how once, long ago, I embraced the same beliefs," Pitt says in the voice-over, "how at one time I was no different from these intolerant Chinese."

According to Elisa Tager, associate producer of the film, no footage has been re-shot. "It was simple to add the new lines," she said. "Jean-Jacques has always said that this was a film about a man's transformation--guilt, transformation and redemption. He was a guy, after all, who not only had Nazi ties but who left his pregnant wife at home in order to climb a mountain."

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A studio insider said, "All of the changes were made by Jean-Jacques on his own--not Sony-enforced," referring to TriStar's parent company, which is releasing the film along with the production company Mandalay Entertainment.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, called the changes "a few lines in a very long film"--but significant ones, on the face of it.

"The filmmakers introduce the moviegoer to the fact that the man came to Tibet as a Nazi--and make it clear that it's important what came before," said the rabbi who has yet to see the movie. "They also create an appropriate distance between that part of his life and his affection for Tibet . . . the freedom of which is the point of the film. Without these additions, enemies of the country could have said, 'See--this is the kind of person with whom the Dalai Lama hangs out.' While the fixes don't get Harrer off the hook, they put the producers and Pitt on a different plane."

The story would have been far more inspirational had Harrer, who is still alive, come clean with his past, the rabbi says. "To watch a man like that get a second chance with the Dalai Lama . . . that would have been truly empowering," he said. "This was no ordinary mountaineer. But then, Austria--unlike Germany--has never dealt with the implications of its deeds. . . . The next question is whether Sony will invite Harrer to the premiere."

Harrer, 85, initiated a meeting with Wiesenthal on June 30 after which he released a statement in his own behalf. The events took place in his youth, he said, representing perhaps the biggest "aberration" in his life. The picture taken with Hitler was "purely ceremonial," he added.

"My personal political philosophy grew out of my life in Tibet . . . and places great emphasis on human life and human dignity," Harrer said. "And it is a philosophy that leads me to condemn as strongly as possible the horrible crimes of the Nazi period."

Times staff writer Amy Wallace also contributed to this story.

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