Reviewed by Joy Parris: Partially inspired by German writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s short story Erfindung einer Sprache (Invention of a Language), PERSIAN LESSONS tells an incredibly suspenseful story about the creativity and bravery one man utilized to survive the Holocaust. Directed by Vadim Perelman Persian Lessons is a beautifully crafted film with layers of depth throughout and each character engaging from the opening sequence.
Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is arrested by SS soldiers alongside other Jews and sent to a camp in Germany. The men are desperate and hungry, a fellow passenger in need of food asks Gilles if he has food-he does, just half a sandwich. He is offered a book in exchange for the sandwich at first reluctant to do so but his fellow passenger insists that it’s a classic Persian book of tales. Gilles opens the book and asks the meaning of some words on the front page. He is told it means father and the other is Reza the son. Immediately after this Exchange, the men are shuffled off the truck to be executed. Gilles pretends to fall and plays dead. He is pulled aside by one of the German soldiers ready to shoot him. He yells he is not Jewish he is Persian and shows them his book. He is stopped from being killed because Commander Koch(Lars Eidinger) is looking for a Persian to teach him Farsi.
Though some of the guards are suspicious of his claim he is hauled off to the Camp. This unseaming miracle may have saved his life but the real terror begins when he finds out he has to teach Commander Koch 40 forty words a day in a language he does not know. One can feel Gilles’s terrifying ordeal as he struggles to come up with words every waking moment.
In Persian Lessons, every frame matters, and for me, it is one of the most riveting films I’ve seen this year. Watching Gilles navigate his charade is tense and scary knowing at any moment his life is at risk as he attempts to create a whole new language. Some of the guards are jealous, especially Max(played by Jonas Nay ) who is determined to uncover his lie and get him killed. He allows Gilles to leave the camp to take out the trash thinking he will escape for his freedom. The perfect reason to hunt him down and finally execute him. To his surprise, Gilles returns to the camp, some might say to a fate worse than death. In a situation where every moment of your life is a ticking time bomb Gilles’s tenacity to survive is a testament to the human will to survive.
The interaction between Giiles and Commander Koch is riveting to watch filled with tension as the Commander’s suspicions deepen. You might find yourself holding tight to your seat not knowing what mistake will unravel Gilles’s deception. Those scenes are brilliantly shot as we feel his fear and sense his courage to survive, in a nightmare that might not end.
The Commander’s manipulation of the system to keep Gilles close so he can continue his lessons and pursue his dreams is a glimpse into the human psychological mindset of one who kills so easily but has tender dreams of hope. The interaction of Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Lars Eidinger in their respective roles is one of the most intriguing combinations as they build a relationship each with their agenda one of survival and one who dreams of opening a restaurant after the war.
With these consummate actors each word and each look matters and so much is said and not said between the made-up language one is left speechless. This is a film that everyone should watch not just for the courageous journey of Gilles but as a reminder of the horrible atrocities humans can inflict on each other. And we still see today, how evil continues to invade the soul of man. Let’s ask ourselves how to stop such madness and not return to such horrific times.
I applaud director Vadim Perelman for his bravery in giving us a film that is provoking, painful at times difficult to watch but so needed now more than ever.
Note: Further, the fabricated version of Farsi spoken by Biscayart was invented by a Russian philologist who used the actual names of documented Holocaust victims as a basis for the film’s vocabulary.
- Directed by Vadim Perelman
- Starring Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger Jonas Nay, Leonie Benesch, Alexander Beyer, Luisa-Celine Gaffron
- Screenplay by Ilya Zofin
- Story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase