Persian Lessons – movie review

Inspired by real events, Persian Lessons is the story of one man’s heart-wrenching struggle to survive the Holocaust.

Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) is a Belgian Jew, captured in France in 1942 while trying to make his way to Switzerland. He’s is bundled into the back of a truck along with many others. They expect to be transported to a concentration camp. On the way, the man alongside him asks Gilles whether he has anything to eat. The man urges Gilles to swap a sandwich for a book written in Farsi. The novel with a handwritten inscription saves Gilles’ skin in the first instance, as he seizes the chance to declare that he’s Persian and not Jewish.

It so happens the Nazi controlling the camp’s kitchen, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), is keen to learn Farsi. He wants to move to Tehran to start a German restaurant in the Iranian capital after the war. He solicits Gilles to teach him four Farsi words a day. Problem is Gilles doesn’t know a single word of Farsi – let alone four. One misstep and his life is likely to be over. As it turns out, there’s more than the odd misstep, not just from Gilles, but from a number of secondary characters as well.

Among them is one of those who transported Gilles – Max (Jonas Lay) – and doesn’t for a moment believe he’s Persian and not Jewish. During his time in the camp, Gilles witnesses no less than 25,000 prisoners pass through. His ordeal and that of his fellow internees is palpable.

Persian Lessons benefits from the constant twists in plot. That is the brainchild of writer Ilja Zofin, who based the work on a novella by Wolfgang Kohlhaase.

Nahuel Perez Biscayart’s forlorn look captures the essence of his character and the times. He doesn’t need to say a great deal, but his eyes see far too much and he is forever on edge. The barbarity and wanton disregard for human life is a mainstay throughout. The Nazis are painted as self-serving tyrants who wield power at will. For his part, Lars Eidinger brings a double-edged sword to his characterisation of Koch.

Vadim Perelman sets a clear direction and doesn’t stray from the path.

Persian Lessons may not have the nuances that the finest Holocaust movies such as Schindler’s List, The Pianist and Son of Saul have, but it drives home the oppressive nature of the regime and the impending doom that permeated those caught in the maelstrom.

Alex First

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