Persian Lessons is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

Almost by definition, every Holocaust survival story is implausible. To hear any of the (precious few) accounts to emerge from the camps is to admire the incredible resiliency and resourcefulness of the survivors, of course. But it is also to note how often these real-life stories contain moments of extraordinary coincidence and near miraculous luck that, in fiction, would strain credibility to the point of breaking. It can't be anything but a series of exceptional and improbable events when one person survives where millions of others didn't.

So, by itself, it would not necessarily be a deal-breaker that Vadim Perelman’s Persian Lessons—a 2020 German-Russian-Belarusian drama recently released in U.S. theaters—hinges on a number of unlikely scenarios and bizarre coincidences. But the film's problems run deeper than that. Though it carries an "Inspired by True Events" tag—by which it must mean the Holocaust itself—Persian Lessons is actually based on a short story by German writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase, adapted by screenwriter Ilja Zofin. It is not "stranger than fiction," but fiction itself, and that makes the film's improbable contrivances harder to swallow, and throws its extremely odd narrative choices into question. In the end—despite some decent filmmaking, and two very strong central performances—Persian Lessons feels not just implausibly constructed, but badly ill-conceived.

Persian Lessons tells the story of Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a Belgian Jew captured by the Nazis in France. Riding in a truck with other prisoners, Gilles agrees to take an old Farsi book of Persian myths (which he can't even read) in exchange for half of his sandwich, a gesture of kindness that ends up saving his life. Just a few minutes later, when the Germans begin firing into the group of prisoners, Gilles hits the ground a split-second ahead of the bullets. "I'm not a Jew, I'm Persian!" he cries. The lie is a desperate bid to be spared, one with little hope of success—except, as it turns out, these soldiers just happen to know of a Nazi officer who happens to be in need of a Persian.

Deputy Commandant Koch (Lars Eidinger) is in charge of the concentration camp's kitchens, but he dreams of opening a little restaurant in Teheran after the war. He has been looking for a Persian to teach him Farsi, and literally can't believe he found one when the soldiers deliver Gilles. Gilles—calling himself Reza, the name inscribed in the book—has to think fast when a suspicious Koch begins asking him to translate German words into Farsi. And so begins the central conceit of the film: Gilles will have to convincingly improvise an entire language if he wants to survive.

The premise is far-fetched, but historically evocative and narratively promising. (This sort of desperate improvisation—making oneself valuable by pretending to be skilled in something—is a common element of survivor stories. As recounted in Maus, Art Spiegelman's father survived Auschwitz in part by passing himself off as a skilled machinist and an expert cobbler.) Certainly, it yields the best and most tension-filled scenes of Persian Lessons, as an exhausted and terrified Gilles attempts to invent and memorize an entire vocabulary. (The one time he slips up—and uses the same made-up word for two different things—Koch becomes suspicious he's been tricked, and nearly beats him to death. Gilles has to scramble to desperately explain that homonyms exist in "Farsi" just as they do in German.)

And there is something thematically poignant in the conceit as well: in this most inhumane, empathy-starved place, Gilles's survival hinges on literally inventing a new common language with which he can reach his tormentor. But it is in this very poignancy that the film begins to feel troubling. Though the film never fully forgets who Koch is, and never completely absolves him, Zofin's screenplay and Eidinger's (admittedly tremendous) performance make the Nazi sympathetic, even heartbreaking. There is a touching innocence in Koch's excitement over learning "Farsi." (He even starts writing poetry in the made-up language.) And when we learn why he wants to move to Teheran, we eventually understand that Koch's real motivation (whether he realizes it or not) is a longing to reclaim his own humanity.

“What I mostly wanted to do is to show the Germans, their humanity," Perelman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2020. "To show that they were just like us, that they’re not any different at all.”

But should that be the mission-statement? Certainly, there is an argument to be made that there is value in underlining the humanity of the Nazis: if we recognize that they were people like us, we may better recognize that we could become them (as a disturbing number of my countrymen seem determined to do) all too easily.

But Persian Lessons errs too far on the side of this mission, and succeeds far too well. It has so much sympathy for the devils that it barely has any to spare for their victims. Of the other prisoners in the camp, we learn very little: except for Gilles, they are nearly all just background extras, and we see almost nothing of the camp's true function. Meanwhile, a truly ridiculous amount of screen-time is given to professional and romantic rivalries among the camp's Nazi guards, a woefully misjudged "comedic" sub-plot rife with petty jealousies, bitchy betrayals, and small-penis jokes.

And in making Eidinger such a well-developed character, Persian Lessons seriously neglects Gilles: Biscayart is wonderful—channeling incredible pain, fear, and anger through a haunted, haggard physicality—but he is given very little to work with in terms of what we learn about Gilles beyond his victimhood and his resourcefulness. The movie should be his, but Perelman and Zofin hand it to Eidinger, nearly giving Koch the real protagonist's role and character arc.

The film ends with two scenes that pay off its absurd premise nicely: one in which we discover the importance of the complicated mnemonic Gilles has employed to invent his phony language, and one in which Koch realizes how he has been duped into thinking he could ever reinvent himself as a human being. Both scenes are heartbreaking, but that's exactly the problem with this misjudged, terribly misbalanced film: only one of them should be.

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