'Persian Lessons': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of HypeFilms
Impressive ending and acting, though it has a wobbly handle on its characters.

This Holocaust drama from Vadim Perelman ('House of Sand and Fog') stars Nahuel Perez Biscayart ('BPM') and Lars Eidinger ('Personal Shopper').

A Jewish prisoner pretends to be Iranian to escape being shot and is then forced to teach Farsi, a language he doesn’t speak, to a Nazi superior in Persian Lessons, the new film from Ukrainian-born, Canada-based director Vadim Perelman (The House of Sand and Fog). “Inspired by true events,” as per an onscreen note, and based on a short story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, this meticulously polished Holocaust tale offers something of a new angle on largely familiar material: The film explores memory, linguistics and transmission against the backdrop of a transit camp, where the detainee will likely be killed should his invented “Farsi” ever be discovered as such — meaning he has to remember every single piece of the nonsensical language he’s making up even better than his Nazi student. 

Persian Lessons’ major calling card isn’t necessarily its story, which is powerful but sometimes also somewhat clumsily told. But the protagonists are played by two powerhouse performers, with BPM breakout Nahuel Perez Biscayart as the resourceful, Antwerp-born prisoner and Lars Eidinger (Sense8, Personal Shopper) having the thankless task of humanizing a Nazi — but not too much. Their complex rapport is what makes this an interesting watch, even if it’s never quite clear what the target audience for the film might be beyond festivals such as Berlin, where this premiered in a non-competing Berlinale Special slot.

(Spoiler of sorts in this paragraph.) In exchange for some food, Gilles (Perez Biscayart) finds himself with a bilingual book of Persian poetry, which is the prop that sets his lie in motion. He manages to avoid being shot only because the Nazi camp leader, Koch (Eidinger), has asked his underlings to bring a Farsi-speaking prisoner to them in exchange for extra rations. It becomes clear that Koch — whose name means "cook" or "chef" in German; so subtle! — dreams of opening a German restaurant in Tehran after the war because his brother lives there. Gilles thus finds himself teaching a language he doesn’t know a single word of. To try and make things a little bit easier, he uses the endless lists of names of the prisoners he needs to log by day as inspiration for his made-up Farsi.

The core of the film is really a Kammerspiel set in the antechambers of hell. Two characters with very different agendas have conversations in drably appointed rooms; one wants to better himself by learning a foreign language so he can leave and thrive elsewhere, the other has been brought there against his will and just wants to survive — and to achieve that he can’t ever be found out. What they perhaps didn’t realize at first is that the essence of first-stage language learning is essentially about talking about yourself (“My name is so-and-so,” “I’m X years old,” “I have one older brother,” etc.) and Gilles thus starts to learn personal things about Koch that no other prisoner knows. This puts him in a strange position, as he is both a detainee and a teacher, an intimate confidant and a lowly minion whose student can literally have him killed whenever he wants.

Ilya Zofin’s dialogue-heavy screenplay doesn’t seem all that interested in the complexity of the power dynamics at play or what Koch’s linguistic interests might say about his loyalty to the Nazi cause (just once one of his superiors suggests it’s a somewhat odd choice to want to move away from the Reich after the war). But Persian Lessons, especially through a few well-written subplots, does give a good sense of the inner working of a Nazi transit camp and how gossip, unfounded suspicions and petty grievances can casually influence life-or-death decisions without any of the Nazi workers so much as blinking an eye, which is spine-chilling. Despite a wobbly hold on the characters and their motives — mostly compensated for by two larger-than-life performances that feel fully inhabited — the film also has a whopper of an ending that is emotionally gut-wrenching as well as thematically coherent, even if the logistics of it sound rather improbable. 

More generally speaking, language is seen here as a tool of transmission and misdirection more than an actual living, breathing thing that’s extremely complex, and it’s odd for the linguistically inclined to note that Gilles only ever seems to be teaching vocabulary, never syntax or grammar. There are other linguistic oddities, like the fact that people from Antwerp are predominantly Dutch-speaking, whereas Gilles speaks fluent French (without a Belgian accent) and German but apparently no Dutch. These kinds of minor mistakes wouldn’t matter so much if the film’s central preoccupations weren’t with language.

Given the story’s intimate and talky setup, it’s quite miraculous that Zofin’s screenplay and Perelman’s mise-en-scene manage to avoid making the pic feel too theatrical. The director wisely stays pretty close to Gilles even as he allows the wannabe Persian to develop a kind of morbid fascination with Koch, who is both his lifeline and his mortal enemy. In terms of the production and costume design, Perelman goes for an approach that leans into old-school filmic depictions of the Holocaust rather than something more recent, like the claustrophobic and cacophonic chaos of Son of Saul.

Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s orchestral score is mostly familiar stuff, except for an entrancing atonal piece midway through the movie that offers a glimpse of a more daring and experimental take on the material.  

Production companies: Hype Film, LM Media, One Two Films
Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, Leonie Benesch, Alexander Beyer, Luisa-Celine Gafron, David Schuetter
Director: Vadim Perelman
Screenwriter: Ilya Zofin, based on Erfindung einer Sprache by Wolfgang Kohlhaase
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Burya, Ilya Zofin, Vadim Perelman, Timur Bekmambetov, Rauf Atamalibekov
Cinematographer: Vladislav Opelyants
Production designers: Dmitriy Tatarnikov, Vlad Ogai
Costume designer: Alexey Kamyshov
Editors: Vessela Martschewski, Thibault Hague
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)

Sales: Memento 

In German, French, Italian, invented “Farsi”
128 minutes