Films about the Holocaust are rarely, if ever, truly bad. Some of them are just OK but many are great feats of cinema. Though when you’ve watched a lot of them, they can all roll into one. This film, however, manages to create a different and original story in a very over covered part of history.
Set in France in 1942, Persian Lessons follows the story of a young Belgian Jewish Man who convinces his German captors that he is in fact a Persian. He’s then taken to an officer who happens to be looking for a Persian tutor. As the Belgian man is not actually Persian, he’s forced to completely make up a language in order to survive the horrors of the Final Solution.
The plot of Persian Lessons wouldn’t be unfamiliar territory for a sitcom if you think about it. You could see a character like Joey Tribiani convincing a woman to sleep with him by pretending to be from an exotic foreign country. Making up a language to woo her. Sadly though Gilles, the young Belgian Jew, is trying to convince his tutee to keep him alive. And effective as this story could be to produce cringe and laughter in a sitcom, it succeeds as well in creating an incredibly tense and stressful film. Every moment in the film will have you on your seat as there are many points where it feels like Gilles could be caught in his lie.
Though the film is very well written, it would not be as effective as it was without brilliant acting. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (Gilles) and Lars Eidinger (Gilles’ German Officer Tutee) play fantastically well off of each other. Their relationship is obviously the driving force of the film. You end up feeling for Eidinger’s character. Through Gilles’ eyes, you find out that there’s more to this man than just a uniform.
There’s also a subplot in this film following one of the guards of the camp. Jonas Nay (who some may know from Deutschland ’83) plays a young NCO who is suspicious of Gilles from the beginning. He and his female friend conspire to find ways to try and catch Gilles out on his lie. These scenes are often the tensest and entertaining of the films and one, in particular, was a big shock indeed. Nay’s performance is probably the stand out of the film. He’s a real person, which is rare in antagonistic Nazi characters. But he is also ruthless and appropriately threatening.
Persian Lessons is not without its imperfections. It begins with a cold open that just shows audio and visuals from the ending. This is a tired and tedious trope in Films and TV and really needs to be stopped. Though it’s a bad open, the rest of the film is a real treat. It may have just needed some cutting here and there.
Persian Lesson is an emotional and unique film. It’s filled with terror and horror but also humanity and even humour at times. It’s a truly great achievement.
Dir: Vadim Perelman
Scr: Ilja Zofin
Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, David Schütter
Prd: Rauf Atamalibekov, Timur Bekmambetov, Pavel Burya, Murad Osmann, Vadim Perelman, Ilya Stewart, Ilja Zofin
DoP: Vladislav Opelyants
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Runtime: 127 mins
Signature Entertainment presents Persian Lessons on digital 22 January and DVD 8 February