Heinrich Harrer, the real-life character Brad Pitt will portray in the upcoming film Seven Years in Tibet was a Nazi during World War II, carrying rank equivalent to sergeant in the elite SS unit. The revelation sent producers into a full publicity-alert to defend the picture.

Harrer, 84, is the former Austrian mountaineer who became the teacher of the young Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, in the '50s. He admitted he had been a Nazi member after the German magazine Stern accused him last week, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

He said his affiliation was "an extremely unpleasant thing" that he now has to "swallow and survive...I have to stress that I have a clean conscience."

Harrer was reportedly recruited into the Nazi party by Hitler himself, who admired his mountaineering skills and made him an instructor for SS officers in sports and gymnastics. He was captured by the British early in the war and imprisoned in a POW camp in India.

He escaped from the camp in 1994 and made his way to Tibet. He told his story in a best-selling book of the same title as the movie--but never revealed his Nazi membership.

Tibet executive producer Michael Besman told the Reporter he is concerned that the public will now take a negative view of Harrer and the Mandalay Entertainment film. "[Harrer] didn't participate in the war," Besman said. "I don't believe it was his philosophy, and, if it was, it changed when he returned from Tibet. That's what the movie's about--a man's journey from someone who's rather selfish to one who's whole of heart."

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud added that Harrer has since "devoted his life to nonviolence, human rights and racial equality."

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