Menu JTA Search

Upcoming Brad Pitt movie sparks uproar over hero’s early Nazi ties

LOS ANGELES, July 22 (JTA) — Only after actor Brad Pitt and his producers completed shooting the upcoming film, “Seven Years in Tibet,” did they make an embarrassing discovery. The hero of the movie — Austrian mountaineer, explorer and human rights activist Heinrich Harrer — is also a one-time member of Hitler’s SA stormtroopers and his elite, black-clad SS. The film is based on Harrer’s autobiographical book chronicling his stay in Tibet from 1944 to 1951. While there, Harrer became the favorite tutor of the then- youthful Dalai Lama. After the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1950, Harrer photographed the conqueror’s human rights abuses and continued to agitate for Tibetan freedom, even after returning to Austria. Given Pitt’s star power and Hollywood’s current infatuation with Tibet and the exiled Dalai Lama — some half dozen movies on the subjects are in the making — the TriStar studio and its parent company, Sony, were confident that they had the making of a commercial hit. Plans for marketing the film were well under way, when in late May the German magazine “Stern” published a startling investigative report. Basing its story on newly released Nazi Party documents and an interview with the now 85-year old Harrer, the magazine revealed that Harrar’s Nazi sympathies were so strong that he had joined the SA brownshirts in October 1933 in Austria, a time when the Nazi Party was actually banned in that country. In a further step, Harrer joined the SS in 1938, only two weeks after the Anschluss had incorporated Austria into the German Reich, and earned the rank of sergeant. A photo from the same year shows Hitler personally congratulating Harrer on climbing the Eiger North Face in the Swiss Alps, a feat that made Harrer a German hero. Also reproduced was a letter from Harrer to SS chief Heinrich Himmler, asking for the required permission to marry, and documenting Harrer’s and his bride’s pure Aryan family tree all the way back to 1800. Had Harrer remained in Austria, he most likely would have fought in an SS division during World War II. The SS also ran the concentration camps. Fortunately for him, Harrer embarked on a German expedition to the Himalayas in 1939. When war broke out later that year, he was interned by the British in India. Harrer escaped in 1944 and made his way to Tibet. He was soon hired as a tutor in English, mathematics, geography and photography for the young Dalai Lama. After the “Stern” story appeared, Harrer released a statement acknowledging the facts — though not the implications — of his Nazi background. He described his membership in the SA and SS as the biggest “aberration” of his life and claimed that his Buddhism-based personal philosophy, shaped during his stay in Tibet, “places great emphasis on human life and dignity.” Back in Hollywood, the revelations caused considerable consternation, followed by attempted damage control by the film’s producers and its French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, according to The Los Angeles Times. Sony executives say the movie takes note of Harrer’s Nazi association, but that its focus is on his seven-year stay in Tibet. They remain committed to the film’s original marketing plans and an Oct. 8 release date. Robert Levin, president of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures, told the Times, “We knew he was a German hero [for his mountain climbing exploits], but not that he was [such a highly involved] member of the Nazi Party. This was a bump on the road that we didn’t expect, but it didn’t send the car out of control.” The SS was judged a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials, but Harrer was never a war criminal, says director Annaud. “This movie is the story of a bastard who undergoes a drastic transformation into an incredible human being,” he said, adding that “it’s a movie about redemption.” The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center is not quite as sanguine about Harrer’s “redemption.” Its skepticism stems partly from a meeting between Harrer and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, held at Harrer’s request to smooth over the controversy. After the meeting on June 30, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, phoned the Nazi hunter. “I asked Simon, `Did Mr. Harrer tell you he joined the SA in 1933?’ and he said, `No’,” Cooper noted in a telephone interview. “And that is our issue today,” Cooper said. “Harrer remained silent about that part of his past for so many years, and even today, remains less than honest. “Millions of young people will see this movie because Brad Pitt is in it, and we don’t want the neo-Nazis utilizing it to try and whitewash any crimes of the Nazi era. That is why Mr. Harrer’s clarity is so important. But right now, he still lacks moral clarity and can’t hold up a mirror to himself.” The Wiesenthal Center is not planning any formal protests but will watch the situation closely. “From his discussion with Simon, or the lack of it, we know Harrer just wants it all to go away,” said Cooper. “It won’t.”