‘Persian Lessons’: Film Review

Director Vadim Perelman treads a fine line between history and invention in this Holocaust survival tale, whose power comes from its two lead performances.

Persian Lessons Russian Cinema
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

In “Schindler’s List,” most of the actors spoke English, using accents to indicate their characters’ origins. In “Son of Saul,” the cast struggles to communicate in a mish-mosh of languages, as Jews of different nationalities were thrown together in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stories about the Holocaust — so vital in trying to reconcile the horrors of the past century — must at some point take a philosophical stand on how to deal with how their characters express themselves.

And then there is “Persian Lessons,” a most peculiar anomaly among tales of the Shoah: It tells of a Belgian Jew who invented a language in order to survive World War II. The film claims to be “inspired by a true story” but is really a parable in the tradition of “The Reader,” wherein a terrified prisoner (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) agrees to teach Farsi — a language he does not know and is therefore obliged to make up — to an eager-to-learn Nazi transit camp commandant (Lars Eidinger) in a resourceful attempt to prolong his life.

The result is a wildly implausible and downright manipulative mix of wrenching human tragedy and absurdist comedy, overseen by Ukrainian director Vadim Perelman, who made one very strong film, “The House of Sand and Fog,” way back in 2003, but has otherwise slipped from the international radar. “Persian Lessons” will no doubt revive his profile, piggybacking as it does on the Holocaust; in a universe where “Jojo Rabbit” can be nominated for a best picture Oscar, it could be a formidable contender on the American awards front. Certainly, it pushed all the right buttons at its Berlin Film Festival premiere, generating consistent laughs right up to its devastating conclusion, which provokes a deep emotional reaction for which even this skeptical critic was not prepared.

And yet, for all its technical strengths — especially in cinematography, score, production design and costumes — the movie feels fraudulent, almost farcical at times, presenting an untenable premise and using it to rehash generic stereotypes about Germans, Jews and an event that claimed the lives of so many. It is, however, remarkably well acted by Biscayart and Eidinger, who rescue what could have been a very bad-taste endeavor and find some humanity in the dynamic that screenwriter Ilja Zofin has imagined for them. Biscayart in particular delivers one of the most deeply identifiable Holocaust-centered performances since Adrien Brody appeared in “The Pianist” nearly two decades earlier.

Best known for a handful of queer-themed films (including “BPM” and “All Yours”) but launched onto a broader stage as the disfigured French soldier in multi-César-winning WWII movie “See You Up There,” Biscayart is a uniquely forlorn-looking, adolescent-sized Argentine actor with narrow cheeks and enormous blue eyes. Here he’s introduced as Gilles, a rabbi’s son from Antwerp, and audiences can decide for themselves whether he looks Jewish or Persian or Belgian or whatnot — that’s a rather unfortunate game that occupies two low-level Nazi soldiers, Max (Jonas Nay) and Paul (David Schütter), after the terrified young man survives a firing squad.

Only moments before, Gilles traded a sandwich for a book of Persian legends, and now he uses the prop to claim that he has been misidentified as a Jew. The movie suggests that the soldiers have heard it all when it comes to desperate pleas for survival. They view the Jewish prisoners as crafty and deceitful (though it is the Nazis’ behavior that bears out those traits in the film) and joke that a Jew would claim to be Chinese if he thought it would save his life. But surely a German would do the same. “Persian Lessons” invites audiences to question how far they might go in Gilles’ position.

As luck would have it, the commandant of the nearest camp, a belligerent but refined German named Koch (Eidinger) who is tasked with overseeing a people-processing facility in occupied France, has been looking for a Persian (despite the many classifications of people the Nazis oppressed, they considered Muslims to be allies). As we come to find, Koch had been a master chef before the war, and he dreams of moving to Tehran to open a restaurant when it’s over. It is his dream, therefore, to learn Farsi, so that he might be fluent when the time comes.

This is a silly but still-acceptable basis for Koch to want a private tutor, though it is not at all clear why Gilles, who presents himself as Reza, should continue to be imprisoned and treated as a kitchen slave, if Koch believes the deception. Also confusing are the reasons that Max — the soldier whom Koch rewarded for finding him a Persian, and who has since been flirting with his former secretary Elsa (Leonie Benesch) — seems so determined to expose or even kill the presumed imposter, when it would only serve to undermine his own advantage.

In these respects, “Persian Lessons” has fallen into a genre-movie trap — landing somewhere in the vast chasm between “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Life Is Beautiful” — of recycling old clichés of Bad Germans and Resourceful POWs. As Perelman attempts to find layers in Koch’s character, he’s obliged to position various other Nazis as cardboard-thin villains, thereby creating a situation in which Koch can potentially redeem himself — while also still behaving in vicious and abusive ways. The commandant’s constantly warning Gilles that he doesn’t tolerate deception, and that Gilles will be executed if he should ever be found to be lying.

These are effective tension-building strategies, to be sure, but Zofin and Perelman ignore the fact that teaching an imaginary language takes more than inventing and memorizing nonsense words. (It’s as if Koch had wanted to learn the violin and Gilles were pantomiming the movements on an instrument without strings.) There’s something inherently comical about the premise, and “Persian Lessons” embraces that to a degree. Horrible, violent things happen to prisoners in the camp, but we’re meant to laugh as Koch recites Gilles’ invented vocabulary and later, when he recites a poem in pidgin Farsi.

Frankly, Perelman could have pushed the satirical elements even further, but instead, he asks us to believe that Koch is gullible enough to believe what he’s learning while treating the audience as dummies as well. Anyone knows that a foreign language is more than mere lexicon. Grammar, phonetics, syntax and semantics all matter, too, and the film never convincingly explains how Gilles manages to circumvent these issues.

In the end, it seems Perelman doesn’t intend for us to take “Persian Lessons” quite so literally. His true focus is not on language but names — the thousands of Nazi victims whose identities are shown burning over the opening credits. The director circles back to that motif in the film’s undeniably powerful finale, an original variation on scenes like “I am Spartacus” and “O Captain! My Captain” that sends shivers down one’s spine as a crowd of characters react to Gilles’ accomplishment. How strange that “Persian Lessons” should use the conceit of inventing a language to describe the near-destruction of another culture entirely. Audiences must decide for themselves whether the metaphor works for them.

‘Persian Lessons’: Film Review

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival, Feb. 22, 2020. Running time: 128 MIN.

  • Production: (Russia-Germany-Belarus) A Hype Film, LM Media, One Two Films production, in association with BelarusFilm. (Int'l sales: Memento Films Int'l., Paris.) Producers: Ilya Stewart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Buria, Ilya Zofin, Vadim Perelman, Timur Bekmambetov, Rauf Atamalibekov. Co-producers: Ilya Dzhincharadze, Elizaveta Chalenko, Sol Bondy, Jamila Wenske, Leonid Shpolskiy, Galina Malysheva, Vladimir Staetski, Mikhail Gilman, Maria Zatulovskaya.
  • Crew: Director: Vadim Perelman. Screenplay: Ilya Zofin, based on the story “Erfindung Einer Sprache” by Wolfgang Kohlhaase. Camera: Vladislav Opelyants. Editors: Vessela Martschewski, Thibault Hague. Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine.
  • With: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, Leonie Benesch , Alexander Beyer, Luisa-Céline Gaffron, David Schütter. (German, French, Italian, faux-Farsi dialogue)