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Will the Past Haunt 'Tibet'?

Movies: Brad Pitt thought he was playing a hero in 'Seven Years in Tibet.' Then another war-era portrait came to light.

July 16, 1997|JUDY BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For some, Heinrich Harrer's apology simply isn't good enough.

The Austrian mountaineer and onetime member of the Nazi Party, who in the '40s tutored the Dalai Lama and chronicled human-rights abuses in Tibet, is the subject of TriStar's October release "Seven Years in Tibet," starring Brad Pitt as Harrer. Because of Pitt's starring role and the growing interest in the Dalai Lama and Tibet around the world, TriStar believed it had a potential hit on its hands.

But several weeks ago, Peter Guber's Mandalay Entertainment, the producer of the film; TriStar's parent company, Sony; and the Simon Wiesenthal Center were blindsided by a German magazine's publication of newly released documents from the German government detailing Harrer's deep involvement with the Nazi Party. The revelations sent shock waves through not only the film community but human-rights organizations as well.

Harrer, 84, has issued a public statement, outlining his past and apologizing for his brief involvement with the party as a young man, and says he in no way aligns himself with the crimes committed under Hitler.

The German magazine, Stern, revealed that Harrer voluntarily joined the Nazi SA (Sturmabtelung or storm troopers) in 1933; enlisted in Hitler's elite SS (Schutzstaffel or Protective Echelon) five years later, becoming a sergeant; and asked SS leader Heinrich Himmler's permission to marry in 1938, giving proof that he and his bride-to-be were proper Aryans.

The filmmakers, including Pitt and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, say they had not been aware of these details. And after Stern published the article, Sony executives reportedly were scrambling to control any damage the revelations might do to the film and fretting not only about how to market the film but when to release it.

While Sony and Mandalay executives concede they did not know everything about Harrer's past until recently, they say the film is not about that portion of Harrer's early life. It does address the fact that he was a member of the Nazi Party, they say, but it mainly focuses on his years spent in Tibet, tutoring the Dalai Lama and photographing human-rights violations. They remain committed to the film's original marketing plans and its Oct. 8 release date.

"Sony knew he was a German hero, but not a [highly involved] member of the Nazi Party. This was a bump in the road that we didn't expect, but it didn't send the car out of control," said Robert Levin, president of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures, referring to the company's marketing plans for the film. "We have not changed any of our release plans for the movie. We are continuing to treat it as a major fall release and we have not modified in any way our full support of the film." Mandalay officials concurred.

Both the production company and the studio concede the news is a strongly emotional issue. But Harrer, they say, was not a war criminal, and the film's director agrees.

"This movie is the story of a bastard who undergoes a drastic transformation into an incredible human being," Annaud said. "I have joked about it being a $17-million movie about redemption. Knowing Harrer as I know him, he did a terrible mistake by becoming an officer for the Nazi SS, something he realized later. In truth, what he did was accept the trend of the day in his country . . . a social decision, not a political one.

"He was a very ambitious young man and this film deals with his blind ambition, a young man who would do anything for success and fame. But the horror he comes to see in Tibet mirrors what happened in his own country. He becomes a changed man and immerses himself in an effort to make a difference. That cannot be dismissed.

"I feel you can draw the line when there is repentance. And with all of his work, he still feels the horror of the stupidity of decisions he made in his young life. It's like the story of [Oskar] Schindler, a man who realizes his mistake and does something about it."

*

For some, that is still not adequate. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said the fact that Harrer is not a war criminal is not the point.

"The issue is moral obtuseness and this movie sets this man up as a hero played by a very big star," Cooper said. "The fact remains that Mr. Harrer has remained silent until now about his past."

On July 1, Harrer released a statement disputing the implications, not the facts, in media reports about his involvement with the Nazi Party. He says that he did join the SS for a limited time in 1938 as one of four climbers of the Eiger North Face in the Swiss Alps, and that he did become an SS athletic instructor but never taught because he went on an expedition to India in 1939, was captured by the British, escaped, and then eventually began working with the Dalai Lama and didn't return to his homeland until 1952.

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