The revelation that his real-life character was a Nazi may hurt the film

I’m not a Nazi, but I play one in the movies. Brad Pitt hasn’t said that yet, but he very well may have to. Last week, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, 84, the real-life protagonist of Pitt’s upcoming Seven Years in Tibet, admitted that he had been a member of Adolf Hitler’s infamous SS elite forces.

To say the least, the acknowledgment may now create an uphill marketing battle for Tibet (which has already ruffled China’s feathers for its pro-Tibetan stance). In TriStar’s $60 million film (due Oct. 8), Pitt plays Harrer as an Austrian explorer who escapes from a WWII British prison camp in India and flees into the Himalayas, where he befriends and tutors the 11-year-old Dalai Lama. ”Brad Pitt is such a big star that he may make the film controversy-proof,” an industry analyst suggests. ”Audiences may even think better of the character because it’s Pitt.”

While neither the actor nor TriStar would comment, director Jean-Jacques Annaud said in a statement: ”I had suspected for a long time that one of the hidden scars Harrer had to heal was left by a possible connection to the Nazis. After Tibet, he devoted his life to human rights and racial equality.” Nonetheless, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper is concerned, especially since Harrer told an Austrian news agency that he has a ”clear conscience.” Says Cooper: ”No one had a gun to anyone’s head to join the SS. It’s deeply troubling that this part of his life is being swept under the rug.”

Of course, the disclosure last year that Laszlo Almasy, Ralph Fiennes’ character in The English Patient, had been a Nazi collaborator didn’t seem to hurt that film: Patient racked up nine Oscars and $77 million. Tibet, touted as nonfiction, may have a tougher battle. Though Cooper says it’s too soon to talk about boycotting Tibet, he insists that Harrer try to make amends. ”The minimum he owes future generations is to cut the crap and come out with a statement that unequivocally condemns his past. I wouldn’t embrace any aspect of this man unless he shows repentance.”