Persian Lessons

While being transported with a group of Jews rounded up in 1942, Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, "120 BPM") trades half a sandwich for a Persian book with a desperate man.  When their truck pulls over, it quickly becomes evident that they will all be shot, but that book ends up saving Gilles’ life when he claims to be Persian and a guard recalls that their transit camp’s Hauptsturmfuhrer has been looking for such a man to give him “Persian Lessons.”

Laura's Review: B

While this film begins by telling us it is ‘based on a true story,’ it was adapted by Ilja Zofin from Wolfgang Kohlhaase's novella "Erfindung einer Sprache," a book even director Vadim Perelman ("House of Sand and Fog") admits in the film’s press notes was based on a story told to the author which he changed significantly.  Zofin’s screenplay feels over-embellished in a Hollywood kind of way, but he’s crafted an extremely satisfying double-barreled ending and Biscayart and especially Lars Eidinger ("Clouds of Sils Maria," HBO's 'Irma Vep') as Hauptsturmfuhrer Klaus Koch build such a compelling relationship that it works emotionally.  Cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants ("Leto") utilizes a palette of brown, green and yellow for his handsome widescreen lensing of misty forests and brutal barracks.

Although one of the guards, Max (Jonas Nay), who brings Gilles to Koch accepts his payment of a can of tinned meat, he doesn’t believe the man, renamed Reza per the inscription inside the book, is really Persian, resenting Koch’s favoritism for the prisoner who is assigned to the officer’s kitchen.  Meanwhile Max’s crush Elsa (Leonie Benesch, "The White Ribbon") is relieved of her duties logging prisoners by Koch because of her sloppy handwriting, Reza given the job instead.    Gilles/Reza, who has been anxious at having to remember scores of ‘Persian’ words he’s made up while ‘teaching’ Koch, begins to use the prisoners’ names to formulate new ones, a glance at the page jogging his memory.

A love triangle of sorts, Jana (Luisa-Céline Gaffron), seduced by a drunken Max resentful to learn he’s smitten with Elsa, who just ended an affair with the Commandant Standartenführer (Alexander Beyer), will further complicate life in the transit camp for both Max AND Koch.  When Max slips up, reusing one of his words for a new definition, he’ll be publicly beaten by Koch, but when he mumbles his made up words in his delirious aftermath, he regains credibility, Koch now compensating for having ‘overreacted.’

While the petty camp backstabbing illustrates a potentially lethal form of office politics, its opposite among the prisoners will also take dire turns, an innocent man dying as a ‘favor’ repaid to protect Gilles.  But it is the evolving dynamic between Gilles and Koch that is the essential core of the film, Koch at first suspicious, laying down rules yet ceding teacher status to ‘Reza,’ later treating him as confidante.  We’ll learn his plan is to open a German restaurant in Tehran after the war, and the more Koch talks, the more his Nazi exterior wavers, Reza even becoming emboldened enough to criticize his choice to join the party.  Koch even helps Reza assist another prisoner and will personally bring him back when he leaves during a mass evacuation.  When Koch asks to recite a poem he’s written in ‘Persian,’ Reza appears to genuinely be moved by his words.

Biscayart, with his large, soulful brown eyes, projects a constant state of anxiety, his character even telling Koch near film’s end that he’s tired of being fearful all the time.   Eidinger initially casts Koch as the typical Nazi villain, introduced loudly berating Elsa for her sloppy work, then grilling Gilles about his identity.  It’s a clever tactic on both the writer and actor’s part, allowing Eidinger to gradually let the façade fall and damned if the actor doesn’t make us conflicted about Koch’s fate, one delivered as both dawning terror and a punch line.  Perelman ends on Gilles’ story, though, one written to encompass the story of thousands.  It is elegantly extracted from his contrivance in the camp yet works as an elegy, a refusal to forget.  One wishes that if anything about this story is true, it is this.

Robin's Review: B+

French Jew Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) waits while his fate is decided by his SS captors. Another inmate offers him a first-edition Persian book in exchange for a morsel of food. The book proves to be key in Gilles plans to survive the death camp by giving “Persian Lessons.”

I have been a student of history, especially Hitler’s Nazi regime, for many years. As such, it is unusual to see a film about that era that does not cover much-trodden territory; “Persian Lessons” is one of those rare, truly unique stories about the Holocaust.

Director Vadim Perelman and writer Ilya Tsofin loosely adapt the short story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Erfindung einer Spracht, about one man’s survival against incredible odds.

When Gilles is rounded up in another Gestapo raid in France searching for Jews, the swarthy-looking young man claims, to his captors, that a mistake was made and he is, in fact, Persian. The book he traded for, dedicated to “Reza,” he claims is his. Though nobody believes him, he comes to the attention of the concentration camp SS mess officer, Klaus Koch, who wants to move to Iran when the war is over to open a restaurant.

Koch comes up with a plan: his new Persian inmate will teach him 40 words of Farsi a week. His goal is to learn 2000 words in two years and live his dream life in Tehran. Gilles, who knows no Farsi at all, begins to make up names for common things, such as “mother,” “book” and “cow.”

Gilles problem is how to deceive Koch into believing he is actually learning the Farsi language. Assigned the task of neatly entering the names of arriving Jews in a ledger, the canny Frenchman devises a plan: use parts of the names of the inmates to create a “Farsi” language.
How these different pieces fit together is the meat of “Persian Lessons,” so I will let you find out for yourself what transpires. Just let me say that the result is a story that resonates with me in its originality, skills in front of and behind the camera, and the satisfying conclusion to a tale that keeps you guessing, I like that.

The unique inventiveness of the story – which may be “based on real events” or just clever, astute fiction – kept me mesmerized, with its two stars equally sharing the screen. The endings, one hopeful and the other of just desserts, brought a satisfying smile to my old face.

Cohen Media releases "Persian Lessons" in select theaters on 6/9/23, expanding on 6/16/23.  Click here for play dates.