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persian lessons


directors: Vadim Perelman (house of sand and fog)
starring: nahuel perez, lars eidinger, leonie benesch and jonas nay


REVIEWER: lyall carter

A young Jewish man pretends to be Iranian to avoid being executed in a concentration camp.

While there have been many true stories told of survivors of the Nazi atrocities committed during World War II, I’d never seen a tale quite like this. A Jewish man pretending to be Persian teaches a Nazi officer a language that he has made up to stave off his own execution. Sounds too good to be true. And even though the film is inspired by true events, people using their own cunning to survive the Holocaust, it appears that Persian Lessons is more allegory than a retelling of a historical event. 


With that in mind, while Persian Lessons is well acted with stirring moments throughout, the crux of the film feels slightly flimsy. 


Occupied France, 1942. Gilles is arrested by SS soldiers alongside other Jews and sent to a camp in Germany. He narrowly avoids sudden execution by swearing to the guards that he is not Jewish, but Persian. This lie temporarily saves him, but Gilles gets assigned a life-or-death mission: to teach Farsi to Head of Camp Koch, who dreams of opening a restaurant in Iran once the war is over. 


Through an ingenious trick, Gilles manages to survive by inventing words of "Farsi" every day and teaching them to Koch. The particular relationship between the two men sparks the jealousy of other prisoners and SS guards towards Gilles. And while the suspicions of Koch grow every day, Gilles understands that he will not be able to keep his secret very long…


Narratively Persian Lessons follows the same well trodden path of many a Nazi, WWII, concentration camp film. While the production values are first class and the cast is first rate, the central point of the narrative, Gilles pretending to be Persian and making up a fake language to keep himself alive, doesn’t really ring true. 


While knowing the story isn’t based purely on historical facts could play a part in that feeling, the logic of the creation of the language by Gilles generally holds. But it’s the relationship between Koch and Gilles, which lacks the depth of the relationship that exists between pianist Szpilman and German officer Hosenfeld in 2002’s The Pianist for example. The power imbalance, the ideological and cultural differences between the two men are not nuanced enough. If those had been played out in a more considered way the crux of the story may have seemed not only more believable but would have carried with it more weight and power. 


While Persian Lessons is well acted with stirring moments throughout, the crux of the film feels slightly flimsy.


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