Director Vadim Perelman and frequent Berlinale film star Lars Eidinger on Saturday championed their new Holocaust-set “Persian Lessons” as a timely, very German tale of how that dark history is closer to us than it seems, made uniquely possible by the fact that most of the film’s production team is not German.
The film’s world premiere comes days after a racially motivated, right-wing extremist mass shooting in the German city of Hanau Wednesday that left nine dead — one of the deadliest incidents in Germany in recent years.
Set in 1942, “Persian Lessons” tells the story of a young Belgian Jew who avoids execution in a German concentration camp by pretending to be Persian, not Jewish, and winds up teaching Farsi, a language he doesn’t know, to a Nazi officer who dreams of opening a restaurant in Iran after the war.
The film was first written in Russian, then translated into English and eventually into German, a language Perelman does not speak. The helmer — whose 2003 debut “House of Sand and Fog” was nominated for three Oscars — also invented the fake version of Farsi spoken in the film in collaboration with a Russian linguist, developing a grammar and a 600-word dictionary.
He was drawn to the project because of his own Jewish heritage, which was a theme he felt was “important to somehow touch on and then let go.” Most films portray Nazis as robots or automatons, but he wanted to move beyond this and craft a humanizing depiction of a Nazi who felt jealousy and fear and love like any other man.
“That humanization is not to in any way to pat them on the back for what they did. It’s to show them as humans, that therefore you as humans in the audience can relate to, and say, maybe I would have done that,” he said.
It’s his way of helping us realize that the Holocaust was far from an anomaly or the product of just one particular political or historical moment. “It can happen in any country, at any time. That’s what I wanted to say.”
The fact that a Ukraine-born American director living in Canada is directing this Russian project in German has given the film a unique voice, said lead actor Eidinger, who is also starring in the main competition title “My Little Sister.”
“It’s very important that it’s someone from the outside telling this story; they can do it better than a German,” as the country is still afraid to confront much of that past, he said. He explained that he was drawn to the project because he grew up in an environment where everyone was always insisting that the Holocaust was in the past and had nothing to do with their “new generation.”
“We always told ourselves we weren’t guilty. [But] my father was born during the war and my grandfather fought in the war, and brought up my father who then brought up me — which makes it direct for me. As a German, I’m still extremely traumatized by this,” he said.
“It’s in my interest to process that trauma. I’m always pleased if I have an opportunity to do so in a film, and in such a complex way where I notice how I face up to certain things,” he said. “Especially because now, we can see how quickly there is a risk that history might repeat itself.”