From director Vadim Perelman comes Persian Lessons, a film that tackles the Holocaust – here’s our review.
In a truck transporting Jewish prisoners in 1942, Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) swops a sandwich for a book of Farsi poetry. A seemingly odd exchange, but he’s taking pity on a hungry fellow captive. He gets his reward minutes later, when the truck stops in the forest and everyone is shot – except Gilles has the brainwave of claiming to be Persian rather than Belgian in the hope it might save his life.
This desperate attempt to stay alive anchors the narrative of Persian Lessons. One of the soldiers remembers that a senior officer at the nearby work camp is looking for a Farsi-speaking prisoner, so he can learn the language. A chef by training, he wants to open a restaurant in Tehran once the war is over and is more than happy to be taught by Gilles – except the new inmate doesn’t know a single word. Precariously walking the tightrope between a job in the kitchen and the wrong end of a gun, he finds ways of inventing words replicating the sound of Farsi and memorising them, even if they are gibberish. As time goes on, the officer comes to trust his tutor, but when the Allied forces start to retake Europe, Gilles’ situation becomes even more precarious.
The backroom politics and machinations in the camp give the piece its real drama, even though they’re designed as a sub-plot to amplify the threat in the main story. They start at the top with Koch (Lars Eidinger), in charge of the kitchens and learning Farsi to escape, while his ‘teacher’ is a prisoner, simply trying to survive. Lower down the ranks, the inner workings of the camp, the gossip, the unfounded suspicions and grievances all chillingly influence what are essentially life and death decisions and, at times at least, overshadow Gilles’ efforts to stay alive.
In a film where language plays a crucial role, the hammer blow ending is all about words. They also help erase the memories of the more improbable aspects of the story, with the camera concentrating on Biscayart’s fragile features, bearing testimony to his constant proximity to death.
Persian Lessons is a more traditional depiction of the Holocaust compared to the relentless chaos of films such as Son Of Saul – and that suffocating atmosphere and constant tension are definitely missed.
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