We see a cold, harsh man at the beginning of the film –a man who doesn’t want the son he and his wife are expecting and goes off to conquer a mountain in the Himalayas– turned into a human being, someone we can respect and trust, even as the Dalai Lama shows him respect and trust, considering him to be not only worthy of looking up to in some ways, but also to be a friend.
The transformation comes about through a series events, the most important of which is the contact with the people and culture of Lhasa, where Heinrich and his friend Peter -after having endured hardships like being in a P.O.W. camp, traveling on foot for hundreds of miles in severe weather conditions, injuries and frostbite- are accepted into the home of a high government official.
The draw of the Tibetan culture and the Holy City is so strong that Heinrich and Peter decide to stay there, and Peter even ends up marrying the town seamstress or “tailor,” as she so unequivocally points out, after both men compete for her affections and Peter ends up winning. They come to refer to the city as Paradise, and indeed after the invasion of the Chinese under the command of Mao Tse Tung, one has a definite feeling of Paradise lost.
The remoteness and mystery of the city are a key part of the movie, and appear to be part of the director’s intention of showing Tibet as an almost otherworldly place with a moral fiber that most people can only hope to aspire to, a place of true holiness, and not just a rigidity based on routines and rituals with no real substance to it.