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Film / Seven Years in Tibet

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A 1997 film starring Brad Pitt and David Thewlis and directed by Jean-Jacques Arnaud.

Pitt stars as Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber who travels to British India in 1939 with the intention of climbing the Nanga Parbat mountain in Kashmir. While in India, war breaks out, and Harrer and his climbing partner Peter Aufschnaiter are arrested by British forces and imprisoned near the Tibetan border. This begins their extended stay in Asia, which climaxes in 1944 when they escape to Tibet and take refuge in its capital, Lhasa. There, Harrer meets and befriends the young 14th Dalai Lama, and becomes one of his tutors. Harrer remains in Lhasa until the People's Republic of China annexes Tibet in 1950.

Tropes in this film:

  • Agony of the Feet: While tumbling down the mountainside, Harrer ends up with his crampons stuck in his lower calf. He hides it from everyone else in fear of being eliminated from the expedition and then bleeds profusely when saving Aufschnaiter a few scenes later. He has a visible limp for the rest of the expedition.
  • Ambition Is Evil:
    • The film introduces Heinrich Harrer, the main character, as an egocentric asshole and bona fide jerk, running solely on ego and ambition to be the first man to climb Nanga Parbat.
    • The Chinese methodically keep stroking personal ambitions of Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, until he eventually switches sides and lets them take over Tibet with minimal military resistance.
  • Anachronism Stew: Sten gun shows up in India, a few years before it was even produced.
  • Artistic License Geography: It's very obviously not Nanga Parbat's peak shown when the expedition starts descending after failing to reach it.
  • Artistic License History:
    • On a personal level, details from Harrer's life are reshuffled out of order and heavily dramatised.
    • The film merges a Kuomingtang (Nationalist) Chinese diplomatic mission with a communist one, serving an ubiquitous "China". To put that into perspective, it's like trying to portray West and East Germany as one and the same, because they have "Germany" in the name.
    • The communists apparently instantly took over the moment WW2 ended, rather than being embroiled in the reignited civil war with the Nationalists.
    • The real-life battle of Chamdo was a series of protracted skirmishes lasting for a few weeks. The film portrays it as a Curb-Stomp Battle betweeen WW2-era troops and a handful of shepherds armed with bows.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Used in-universe - a med kit inventory list is used as a "permit" to go to Lhasa, since none of the Tibetans are familiar with the Latin alphabet anyway.
  • As You Know: The lecture on the importance of Chamdo, and later about the importance of the local arsenal.
  • Based on a True Story: The film is based on Heinrich Harrer's autobiography of the same name.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: After starving for over a year and living like a vagabond beggar, during the tailoring measurement scene, Harrer just looks like Brad Pitt at his youthful, muscled prime. Keep in mind that he was stealing dog food just a few scenes prior to sustain himself.
  • Blatant Lies: The Chinese claim that they're saving Tibet from foreign imperialists. In one scene, after hearing a radio broadcast along these lines, a bemused Tibetan asks just where all these imperialist foreigners are.
  • Brownface: Happens in-universe. The escape plan from the internment camp relies heavily on the use of brown shoeshine paste and native garb.
    [Blond-haired, blue-eyed Harrer looks at the pile of costumes and the shoeshine]
    Heinrich: [uninpressed] This is your plan? In my humble opinion, this is ridiculous.
  • Catapult Nightmare: The Chinese soldiers are invading Tibetan borderland, killing everyone on sight. Eventually, they force a young monk at gunpoint to kill his own elderly master. The second the monk breaks down and does so, young Dalai Lama springs up in his bed, revealing the sequence to be just a nightmare... or was it really?
  • Chekhov's Gun: The photo of Dalai Lama, given to him as a lucky talisman, actually does save Harrer's skin. When caught by a military patrol, rather than getting into trouble, he's simply escorted back to the Tibetan border, while the commander of the patrol is in turn given the photo as a gift.
  • Clothing Damage: Years of walking through mountainous wilderness will do wonders for your already old clothes. By the time Harrer and Aufschnaiter finally reach Tibet, they are wearing half-torn rags.
  • Constantly Curious: After all, the 14th Dalai Lama is but a child. Once Harrer becomes his tutor, he's bombarded by questions about the world and its workings.
  • Culture Clash/Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • When Harrer starts bragging that the locals are clapping over their arrival in joy, Aufschnaiter points out that's their way of fending off demons.
    • A large section of the film and eventual Character Development for Heinrich is his enormous ego-trip, constantly confronted with Buddhist detachment and removal of self.
    • Pema can make Western-style clothes, but that doesn't mean she doesn't find them silly.
    • Played for some minor laughs when the workers digging foundations for the cinema found earthworms. Cut to an entire crowd of monks showing up and slowly sowing through the soil, removing the worms and relocating them somewhere else. While Heinrich is amused, he at least understands why they are doing this and rolls with the delay.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The dramatised battle of Chamdo confronts the hardened by the Chinese Civil War PLA veteran troops against a motley, poorly trained Tibetan militia. The resulting "battle" is a completely one-sided slaughter.
  • Darkest Hour: When trying to cross the Himalayas to Tibet, Heinrich and Peter are caught by a blizzard, with no supplies and their horse dying out of exposure, while someone is trying to attack their ramshackled tent.
  • Dead Sparks: The Harrers marriage is pretty much a formality: Heinrich is clearly not interested in his wife, and she cheats on him the second he leaves Austria.
  • "Dear John" Letter: While in the internment camp, Harrer receives a letter from his wife with divorce papers.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Once escaping out of the internment camp, Harrer realises he has nothing to do and nowhere to go. The rest of the film is him trying to find any purpose for himself and, in the process, outgrowing his egoism.
  • Dog Food Diet: Heinrich and Peter try to shoo a dog away from its bowl once reaching Lhasa - and get caught eating its food.
  • Dueling Movies: With Kundun, a 1997 biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama directed by Martin Scorsese. Despite underperforming in the box office, still earned nearly 15 times more money than the bomb that Kundun turned out to be.
  • Ear Worm: Debussy's Clair de Lune is played by the music box and catches the attention of various characters.
  • Exact Words:
    Ngapoi Jigme: Rest assured, there will be no surrender as long as I am in Chamdo.
    [The very next shot is him riding away from the fortress, after setting on fire the ammo supply]
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Heinrich and Peter aren't very friendly to each other at first due to the former's arrogance and selfishness, but they become close after being forced to escape the British Army together and settling down in Tibet.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: During her introduction, Pema is having a measuring tape hanging over her neck, further portraying Harrer as too horny to think straight.
  • Foregone Conclusion:
    • The first hour of the movie suffers greatly from this trope, since viewers know from the get-go that Harrer will end up in Tibet, making any sort of dramatic build-up completely moot.
    • And of course, Tibet will be taken over by communist China.
  • Foreign Queasine: The classic: Tibetan tea, served with yak's milk and butter, drink when cold, just before the fat starts to solidify. It is widely considered to be one of the most disgusting drinks in existence, and the film uses it for comedic purposes.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: It's hard to even call Harrer a friend. Both he and the other expedition members feel simply stuck with each other, while he's egocentric, stuck-up and deliberately distances himself from the rest of the group. For their part, they grudgingly accept his presence, but see and eventually comment on all his personal flaws. This eventually leads to a boiling point much later in the story, when, once in Tibet, Heinrich sells Peter's memento watch and gets chewed up for all his flaws, particularly his egoism.
  • Friendship Moment:
    • After Peter calls Heinrich out for making him trade his watch and leaves him alone, the latter ignores him for a couple of minutes before catching up with Peter, admitting what he did was wrong, and sincerely apologizing.
    • Later in the movie, Heinrich manages to find Peter's watch and buy it back for him on Christmas. Peter, in turn, thanks Heinrich for saving his life and they hug.
  • The Good Chancellor: The Dalai Lama's regent is presented as a rigid man, but he also seems loyal to his spiritual leader and dedicated to preserving their country.
  • Going Native: Both Harrer and especially Aufschnaiter adopt more and more into Tibetan customs after settling in Lhasa. But even in the end, neither finds the Tibetan tea appealing and force themselves to drink it for the sake of a custom rather than pleasure.
  • Great Escape: Harrer tries again and again to run away from the internment camp. He only succeeds when backed by the rest of his expedition.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Harrer becomes progressively more jealous of Pema taking more and more interest in Peter, rather than him. Eventually she confronts him over actively ruining their friendship, while also trying to damage her relationship with Peter.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: As part of their "ignorant, lost foreign tourist" act, both Heinrich and Peter pretend that they have no idea why the border guards and road patrols try to turn them away, always applying Translation by Volume. They are, of course, fully aware that foreigners are forbidden from getting into Tibet.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The movie downplays Heinrich Harrer's involvement in the Nazi Party. To be fair, he later described it as a youthful mistake and he never actually fought for the Nazis, having left Europe before the start of the war. Still, the image of him insisting that he's Austrian and only reluctantly taking the Nazi flag is a false one.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme was a very complex person, with a nuanced stance over Chinese control over Tibet, and at his worst, he could be considered a Tragic Monster. The film portrays him as an ambitious, self-serving Quisling, who knowingly doomed his own country and its culture for personal profit.
  • I Hate Past Me: Once the communists start pushing toward Tibet, Harrer comments how he dislikes the fact that he once supported a military regime trying to overpower weaker nations.
  • Ineffectual Loner: The first half of the movie is an extensive study of Harrer's ineffectuality due to being a self-centered jerk. He would rather sit on his own than get familiar with the other expedition members and stays away from them for most of their time together. You know, the people his life depends on when climbing. The ineffectual part is especially obvious during Great Escape part of the film: Heinrich escaped on his own numerous times, but always got caught soon after. Meanwhile the other members of the expedition spend quite some time preparing an extensive escape plan, with supplies for the journey. When Harrer succeeds with them, he ditches them, only to soon after get into trouble anyway and is saved by Peter.
  • Infodump: Numerous, just to make sure that the audience understands each and every aspect of the story. A more notable case is when Diki Tsering, Dalai Lama's mother, explains to Harrer all the official protocol regarding interactions with her son, which is important later on in the scenes with the Chinese delegation.
  • Insistent Terminology: Both in-unverse and on meta-level, the film does its very best to remind everyone that Harrer is an Austrian and most definitely not a German or a Nazi. As stated in Historical Hero Upgrade, Real Life Harrer joined both NSDAP and SS before leaving to the Himalayas, which was pretty much pre-requested to go on the expedition.
  • It Will Never Catch On: In a scene set in 1945, Harrer is told that "the war" is over. He is not surprised and asks if the Communists have given up. He is then told that "the war" he is being told about is not the Chinese Civil War, but "his" war, and that it is Germany who has surrendered. This elicits a bigger response from Harrer, as it means that he can go home now.
  • It's All About Me: Harrer starts the story as a massive prick. He ditches his wife, expecting childbirth, to go on his dream tour to the Himalayas and acts out on her for nagging him. Later, he sells a personal object of another expedition member for chump change, despite not even having to, and then lashes on someone's sentimental attachment. And when eventually reaching Tibet, he's mostly interested in his personal well-being for quite a while.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Not so much as leaning as directly talking to the audience.
    Do you think someday people will look at Tibet on the movie screen and wonder what happened to us?
  • Kick the Dog: Several Chinese officers kick and smudge the sand mandala the Tibetan monks have been painstakingly working on. While the entire point of making a sand mandala is to destroy it in the end, there's a difference between ritually destroying the mandala and unceremoniously stomping on it even as someone is explaining what it is.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The Nightmare Sequence can be interpreted both ways: either it was just a nasty dream or the actual event going on around the same time at the border.
  • Mighty Whitey: Invoked and in the same time subverted. Heinrich and Peter are two white guys that understand and know the Western world, which means they have a basic grasp of its affairs and that's what's needed from them for the most part as consultants and tutors. But when suddenly asked about army and military affairs, they exchange confused looksnote .
    Dalai Lama: Don't you have all the answers, Henry?
    Harrer: No, I don't.
  • National Stereotypes: It's a Hollywood film about an Austrian mountain climber. Of course you will eventually get someone wearing lederhosen.
  • Never My Fault: Heinrich conceals the severity of an injury of his, which leads to the climb leader nearly dying when he is unable to support their weight. He refuses to accept responsibility when the leader confronts him over this.
    Heinrich: It's not your problem.
    Leader: Actually, it is my problem. It's my life.
    Heinrich: What?
    Leader: When you conceal a serious injury and put my life at risk... I consider that my problem.
    Heinrich: No, you put your life at risk. I saved it, so shut up!
    Leader: The next time you lie about an injury, Heinrich... you're off the team.
    Heinrich: Try it.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Once under the care of Ngapo Jigme, Heinrich and Peter are visited by a young, good-looking woman who instantly orders them to undress. Thinking their host send them an escort, they get really awkward about it. Pema eventually catches the wind of it and explains that she's a tailor, and she needs their measurements if she's supposed to provide them with Western-style clothes that Jigme wanted to gift them.
  • Out of Focus: Every other expedition member that isn't Heinrich or Peter. Good luck even remembering their names.
  • Prison Escape Artist: Heinrich makes at least four solo escape attempts before joining Peter's and makes it outside the wire at least once.
  • The Quisling: Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme is portrayed as a Chinese plant, openly aiming to elevate himself into a position of power, even if it costs his own country independence. He is also portrayed as never even attempting to reach out for outside help.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Harrer is on the receiving end of four of those, as it takes him forever to accept that he's a deeply flawed man
    • The letters he receives from his wife and son are essentially those: they are completely fed up by his antics and don't want to have anything to do with him.
    • Peter delivers a vicious one after Heinrich sold his memento watch, despite having an entire can of watches for barter, calling him out of his self-importance and being a massive tool that's his worst own enemy. If not for the fact that they are stuck together, he would just abandon Harrer here and there.
    • Pema chews him out for his clumsy attempts to first court her and then trying to put a wedge between her and Peter. This is the point where it finally sinks in to him what sort of asshole he is.
    • And finally, a far more subtle one is delivered by the young Dalai Lama, as he simply reminds Harrer that he's not his son and he shouldn't treat him as a Replacement Goldfish for Rolf.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The escape plan from the internment camp relies on dressing up as native workers and British officers, then walk straight through the main gate when the actual Brit on the post is distracted by a fake message. Aufschnaiter goes as far as pointing at the dirorderly uniform of one of the sentries, asking him to sort it out.
  • Replacement Goldfish: After being divorced by his wife and denounced by his son, Harrer ends up "parenting" Dalai Lama and the film isn't subtle about it. Eventually the boy has to remind Heinrich that he's not his son nor has he ever considered him a father figure, so he shouldn't be overstressing about him, but instead try to reach out to Rolf, his real son.
  • Scaling the Summit: It starts with Heinrich Harrer leaving his wife and going on a climbing expedition in the Himalayas. While he's there, the war starts and he's arrested by the British Army.
  • Secret Stab Wound: While climbing with a team in the beginning in the movie, Heinrich conceals the severity of an injury, which leads to someone nearly dying when he is unable to support their weight.
  • The Shangri-La: A more idealistic version of the Tibetan way of life than what was described in the book.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Gender flipped. Both men look much better once cleaned, shaved and redressed from their beggar garb into a new set of clothes.
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: Right from the start, Heinrich and Peter do not gel well together, and they only drop their differences once they eventually reach Lhasa, after their very lives depended on co-operation for so long.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The story takes a variety of artistic licenses when it comes to geography, history, medicine or even alpine climbing, but when Harrer steals stale food from a temple altar, he ends up with a (near-fatal) food poisoning.
  • Take Back Your Gift: In Tibetan culture, returning a gift is a great insult. Harrer returns a gifted jacket to The Quisling on purpose, because he wanted to make clear they really weren't friends anymore.
  • Too Important to Walk: Every time Dalai Lama is outside of the Potala Palace, he's carried in a sedan chair or, at the very least, loaded on a cart he's not allowed to leave on his own.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: The Tibetans attempt to fight off the Chinese invasion is portrayed as this. As is typical of Real Life rather than Hollywood, they get slaughtered.
  • Translation Convention:
    • English with "Austrian" accent is used for in-universe German.
    • English for whatever language is spoken and understood by Harrer.
    • A truly weird thing happens with writing. All letters and Heinrich's journal are in German... but the note he left with the watch for Peter is in English.
  • Viewers Are Morons: As opposed to Kundun, this film tries to over-explain everything, often leading to random Infodumps peppering the dialogues in a very blatant way.
  • Voiceover Letter: How Harrer's journal and letters to Rolf are presented. Bits of it (not all) are lifted verbatim from the source book.
  • We All Die Someday: The Buddhists are shown celebrating the impermanence of all things with statues made of butter and elaborate sand pictures. This is true to life.
  • We Used to Be Friends: After the Chinese conquer Tibet and start installing their rule over it, Harrer has an angry confrontation with Ngapoi Jigme over betraying his own country and its culture, having a fall-out from friendship and mutual help to almost having a punch-out.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • After Heinrich hiding an injury nearly leads to a fellow climber dying when it flares up while he is supporting their weight, said climber chews him out for not considering how his choice affected others.
    • He gets another one from Peter after the latter is forced to trade his father's watch, which is very sentimental for him, while Heinrich has three random ones that he could've traded instead but chose to hide.
  • White Male Lead: While telling the story of Tibetan subjugation, the film centers on Heinrich Harrer and his personal life, rather than the grand history that he's witnessing. To make it stand out some more, Harrer and Aufschnaiter were the only white people in the whole country, and yet the story is told from their perspective.
  • Worst Aid: The way Harrer treats his crampon wound would lead, in his condition and location, to a severe frostbite and would quickly require an amputation.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Whatever accent Brad Pitt was attempting (which by itself was already a questionable choice), it can hardly pass as anything even resembling German-accented English. It's just as infamously inconsistent.
  • You're Not My Father: Young Rolf eventually gets so fed up with Harrer's letters, he sends him his first and final reply - in which he tells him to stop, signing the letter with his stepfather's surname.