Persian Lessons (2023)

‘Persian Lessons’ speaks a universal language

Plagued by contrivance and implausibility, “Persian Lessons” nonetheless capitalizes on a pair of highly credible performances to emerge a hard-to-forget Holocaust tale in which memory is both a prisoner’s bane and his best means of survival.

His name is Gilles, a rabbi’s son from Antwerp first seen en route from France to a German concentration camp. Or, that’s what he and his fellow passengers initially believe. Instead, they are transported to a remote outpost for execution. But the quick-thinking, ever-resourceful Gilles arises the lone survivor, convincing his captors he’s not a Jew, but a Persian named Reza Joon. And he carries a book written in Farsi to prove it.

What luck! And to add to it, the soldiers’ commander, Klaus Koch, just happens to be looking for someone to teach him Farsi to facilitate a post-war plan to move to Tehran and open a German restaurant with his A.W.O.L. brother. Surely, Klaus isn’t gullible enough to believe Gilles, er Reza, is the meal ticket for the guy in charge of the transfer camp’s food service. Ah, but he is. At least after some early trepidation.

Thus, the stage is set for a story in which two men on opposite sides of the Third Reich bond over a made-up language that only Gilles and Klaus comprehend. But one slip, or maybe two, and Gilles will go from gutting fish in his cushy job in the camp’s commissary to being gutted himself. This element of suspense enables director Vadim Perelman (the Oscar-nominated “House of Sand and Fog”) to construct one tense scene after another. At times, it’s almost unbearable … in a good way. But there are also moments in Ilja Zofin’s script when you say to yourself, “Come on! How clueless can Klaus be?” Yet, you never step away from the table, hungering for more of what Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Lars Eidinger serve as Gilles and Klaus, respectively. Both are excellent at uncloaking the humanity in two men who’ve borne witness to some of the most inhumane acts conceived by man.

Even more fascinating is how Klaus, speaking in a new language, breaks through the facade of a jack-booted thug to reveal a man of great sensitivity and compassion, even writing poetry in the faux Farsi. But what Perelman is really attempting to capture – in an overly extensive exploration – is the depth to which Gilles and Klaus are served by memory. For Klaus and Gilles, this means learning more than a thousand words in fabricated Farsi and committing them to total recall. For Gilles, it’s a more poignant means of remembrance, fashioning his “Farsi” lexicon from bits and pieces of the names of the multitudes who’ve passed through the camp on their way to certain death.

Equally compelling is the guilt you discern in the forlorn expressions on Biscayart’s face, as Gilles’ huge, sorrowful eyes seemingly protrude from his gaunt, malnourished frame. More than once, director of photography Vladislav Opelyants contrasts the dramatic size difference between the hunky Klaus and the tiny, frail Gilles. It perfectly underscores the power and command one man holds over the other.

This isn’t the first time the native Argentine’s diminutive stature has served Biscayart well. He won a French Cesar Award for his portrayal of an AIDS-stricken activist in the affecting “BPM (Beats Per Minute).” But here, it proves even more impactful, as the enormity of his situation weighs heavier and heavier on his battered body and soul. It’s a touching performance matched only by Eidinger’s ability to do the impossible: elicit empathy for a man who’s sacrificed his conscience for what he has been brainwashed into believing is his duty.

As long as Biscayart and Eidinger share the screen, the film soars. But when Perelman and Zofin insist on introducing superficial subplots involving schemes by Klaus’ underlings to undermine both Gilles and him, a movie that’s already 20 minutes too long drags even more. Yet, you stick with it, mainly because there is so much truth lurking inside a story about what war and indoctrination to hate can do to even the most decent of people. Perelman says it wasn’t his intent, but there is much to his story that reflects our nation’s current political climate. Hatred is easy, understanding our differences is hard. But if we don’t make the effort, like Gilles, how will we ever hope to survive?

Movie review

Persian Lessons

Rated: Not rated

Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger and Jonas Nay.

Director: Vadim Perelman

Writer: Ilja Zofin

Runtime: 127 minutes

Grade: B

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