Seven Years in Tibet
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud / Writer: Becky Johnston (From Heinrich Harrer’s book) / DP: Robert Fraisse / Editor: Noëlle Boisson / Score: John Williams
Cast: Brad Pitt / David Thewlis / BD Wong / Mako / Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk / Lhakpo Tsamchoe / Jetsun Pema
Climb Every Mountain…
Respected French Director, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s first venture into English-language cinema, had been his classic 1986 picture The Name of the Rose, that featured Sean Connery’s best performance of the Eighties. Ten years and a few French films later, he found himself producing & directing an ambitious adaptation of an autobiography by one Heinrich Harrer.
During the Thirties, Harrer had been a successful mountaineer in his native Austria; the highlight of this period, being his membership of a quartet of climbers who, in July 1938, had conquered the North Face of the Eiger, otherwise known as ‘The White Spider’: a route considered unclimbable, given the number of lives it’d claimed to that point (the feat was covered in the 2008 picture North Face). The national obsession with their achievement was only amplified as a result of Austria’s ‘Anschluss’ with Germany, in March that same year. By then, Harrer was an NCO in the SS and a military career beckoned…
However, the call of the mountains remained a constant in Harrer’s life and a year later, a few months before the outbreak of WWII, he joined a small expedition led by fellow Alpinist Peter Aufschnaiter, with the goal of reconnoitring a route up the Himalayan peak of Nanga Parbet. With sponsorship from the Nazi’s Sports Ministry, the group reached India and scouted the mountain. Unfortunately, their return to Germany coincided with the outbreak of war, so they – along with many other foreign nationals – were interned at a camp near Bombay (present-day Mumbai). After numerous – failed – escape attempts, a small group finally made it beyond the wire, though only Harrer & Aufschnaiter made it to distant Tibet, arriving there in January ‘46, some nine months after the war in Europe had ended. But this is where their stories really began…
But enough of the background: what of the film? If I were to second-guess Annaud, I’d say that for his two leads, he was looking for ‘Ice & Fire’: two distinctive personalities who’d spark-off each other and CREATE ENERGY. With Brad Pitt as Harrer and David Thewlis as Aufschnaiter, I’d say he succeeded. From the off, Thewlis carries himself with an assured confidence. His characterisation is that of a self-contained, natural leader who, had things gone differently, would’ve made an effective officer in the Wehrmacht. Pitt’s Harrer, by contrast, is shown as a cocky loose-cannon, possessed of nothing but his own arrogance. What are the chances, that as the film plays-out, some of these qualities might be smoothed-out or even overturned? I was also a little disturbed by Pitt’s Austrian accent, that’s prone to wander from scene-to-scene, but with looks such as his, I suppose you can’t have everything else as well…
Annaud also did well in casting his supporting players, with the ever-reliable Mako, playing a Tibetan Minister (Kungo Tsarong) who accommodates our two weary heroes and B D Wong, who’s treacherous Minister Ngawang Jigme, ultimately sides with the Chinese. His motivation is clearly to avoid bloodshed, but his latter scenes are difficult to watch, which is credit to Becky Johnston’s screenplay. There are three other players I’d like to call out for their contribution to this picture.
First, is Jetsun Pema. Madam Pema played the Dalai Lama’s mother in the film, but she’s actually the real Lama’s sister, which meant that she actually played her own mother, which can’t have been easy: credit once again, to Annaud’s production, for having earned this seal of ‘family’ approval. The conviction and humility displayed when informing Harrer of the protocol involved in meeting the Dalai Lama, is itself humbling to witness. Second, is Lhakpa Tsamchoe. An Indian actress discovered by the film, she plays Pema Lhaki, a tailor who makes clothes in the Western style for the two newcomers and who ends up marrying Aufschnaiter. Her performance is revelatory, being suffused with a world-weary pragmatism and curiosity about the world beyond Tibet.
Standout for me, though and third on my list, is Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, who plays the Dalai Lama aged fourteen. Wangchuk’s father was actually a Bhutanese diplomat, so this young actor had some experience of balancing life in a remote community, with the ‘wider world’ and its pressures; no small feat, yet he manages here, to convincingly capture the Dalai Lama’s enduring curiosity about the world and the endearing playfulness with how he conducts himself to this day. It’s a difficult balancing act and it’s to both his – and the production’s credit – that such a pivotal central role is given sufficient ‘air’ to breathe.
For make no mistake: once our intrepid duo finally – finally! – enter the forbidden city of Lhasa, the story shifts its gears dramatically. What, to that point, had been a story of survival against the odds, now becomes little more than a palace intrigue, with China portrayed as the ‘wolf at the door’. For obvious reasons, the picture was even shot in a different hemisphere to China, in Argentina, though authentic contemporary footage of the Potala palace and elsewhere was obtained illegally.
Until the wolf blows the house down, there’s still time (in the late 1940s), to show the rehabilitation of Harrer’s character, through finding employment as a surveyor and civil-engineer for the Government of Tibet. More importantly, he befriends the young Dalai Lama, who then engages him as a tutor, to instruct him ‘about the world’. It’s a role Harrer’s honoured to accept, as it forges a deep friendship between the two men. It might’ve been Harrer’s destiny all along; his adventures were just part of a greater, deeper script that would interact with the Dalai Lama’s later-on… When the Chinese finally arrive in-force, the Tibetan people and their ancestral homeland become pawns in a geopolitical power struggle that continues to this day.
Problems? I’ll be honest with you, Dear Reader and just come out with it: I think Pitt was miscast in this picture; attached to it because of his then-ascendant star power. It’s an intelligent film, that might’ve benefitted from a smaller performance, but the guy’s good looking and an authentically Aryan blonde and for all I know, maybe he wanted to make an ‘issues film’ that touched on a subject dear to his heart, while he had enough capital in Hollywood with which to do it. Maybe that’s it: after all, both he and Thewlis are still banned from entering China twenty years-on, as a result of their involvement with this picture, so that’s to be respected. I just don’t think he was the right choice for this picture. Still, he was cast, the film was made and for all that, we should be grateful.
But I’d love to know how much was left on the cutting-room floor; so many sub-plots that were never developed leave me wondering why Johnston introduced them in the first place? Then again, perhaps in the edit, it was realised that too many diversions would detract from Harrer’s experience: after all, it’s HIS story.
The film’s pace is slow at times as well, but I think this reflects the often lengthy spiritual pathways we must follow, if we’re to attain enlightenment. That idea – of the longer a person’s journey, the greater their healing – is explored in the film, both in the trek itself, from internment camp to Tibet (itself over 2000km) and in the time given to develop Harrer’s relationship with the Lama.
The film is amazing at times (courtesy of DP Robert Fraisse), but Harrer’s obnoxiousness is so robust early-on, that despite his late softening, it’s hard to empathise at times. It gives the audience little to hold on to, for too long and it’s telling, that my sympathies switched to Aufschnaiter early-on and limped back to Harrer only reluctantly. We know Harrer will be redeemed over the course of the picture, but boy does it take a while… Oh and while I’m at it, I was amazed to learn that John Williams had scored this picture, as his contribution never reaches the heights I would’ve expected. It seems hackneyed and lacking in focus, as if he’d knocked it together from motifs rejected by Spielberg…
If we put the score to one side, that theme – of lacking focus – is the film’s biggest overall weakness, I feel. As alluded to previously, it struggles to understand its subject’s motivations and influences (i.e. the fact Harrer was in the SS is never mentioned) and allows too many red herrings to crowd its shallows, when it ought to have braved deeper waters and stared into the deep. That would’ve made for a different film, of course, but a little tightening here and there might’ve worked wonders: alas, unless there’s enough leftover material (and the will on Annaud’s part) for a total re-edit, we can only speculate as to what might have been.
I didn’t want a child, so I ran away to climb a mountain.