SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, a 1957 documentary, possesses the same name and subject of the 1997 feature starring Brad Pitt. This record of Heinrich Harrer's adventure in Tibet and his friendship with the Dalai Lama makes a marginally interesting companion piece. In 1939, at the outbreak of WWII, Austrian mountain-climber Harrer is captured and interred in an...read more
SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, a 1957 documentary, possesses the same name and subject of the 1997 feature starring Brad Pitt. This record of Heinrich Harrer's adventure in Tibet and his friendship with the Dalai Lama makes a marginally interesting companion piece.
In 1939, at the outbreak of WWII, Austrian mountain-climber Harrer is captured and interred in an Indian P.O.W. camp. Harrer escapes from the prison with several other men and, at great peril, crosses the jungles of India and the mountains of the Himalayas. Against the wishes of Tibet's religious
leader, the Dalai Lama, Harrer and his companions enter the forbidden country of Tibet, and, eventually, the Holy City of Lhasa, where they are again held as prisoners.
But after a few months, Harrer and the men are freed and virtually ignored as they reside in and observe the city. Over a period of time, the Dalai Lama even befriends Harrer and gives him a movie camera to document the frequent religious and cultural ceremonies of Lhasa. But after a few peaceful
years, life in Tibet changes drastically when China's Red Army marches into and takes over the country, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee as a refugee. Harrer reflects mournfully about the fate of Tibet, knowing that he, like the Dalai Lama, will probably never return.
SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET supplements not only the 1997 namesake film, but also 1997's KUNDUN, which is also about the Dalai Lama's life (though not Heinrich Harrer). Unfortunately, all three films feel about seven years in length, telling a dramatic story in a lugubrious, heavy-handed way. This
documentary runs only 79 minutes, but its old-fashioned style (pre-cinema verite re- enactments with voice-over narrator) diminishes its immediacy and interest-level.
To be fair, director Hans Neiter makes SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET like most documentaries of the day and bestows an artful, atmospheric charm to some of the recreated moments from Harrer's experience. At other times, however, the acting is quite wooden and the inauthentic elements (particularly in the
faux-Eastern music score) undercut the most valuable scenes: Harrer's actual filmed footage from his Tibetan journey. To the film's discredit, these moments are never labeled as such, but merely mixed in with the new material. Harrer apologizes in the introduction for the poor quality of his
location filmmaking, but he never mentions the faked material (nor does he apologize, by the way, for having been a Nazi when he was caught by the British in India).
SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (1957) also poorly and too briefly covers the Dalai Lama's escape, but at least the material here is genuine-- perhaps the only filmed record of the momentous event. For this reason, if no other, this tiring film retains some value today.
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