France, 1942. Jewish prisoners are crammed in the back of a military truck on their way to their fate, matter-of-factly exchanging tips about how they messed up their attempts to flee (“You were trying to reach Switzerland? You should have gone via Italy”). And so begins Persian Lessons, a highly agreeable piece of work with decidedly old-fashioned sensibilities.
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is Gilles, a Belgian Jew who, moments after swapping a book written in Farsi for a sandwich (a common wartime occurrence, naturally), tells a spontaneous lie to save or at least slightly prolong his life. It turns out that the Nazi officer (Lars Eidinger) assigned to oversee the camp’s kitchens has been looking for an Iranian to teach him Farsi, since he plans to move to Iran to open a German restaurant after the Reich’s victory. A film claiming to be inspired by true events is not the same as a film based on true events. Try to guess which category Persian Lessons falls into. Gilles, now masquerading as an Iranian, desperately conjures up fake Farsi (which is soundalike gibberish) as a means of survival, but if he forgets which words he’s invented, then it’s a bullet in the head.
The Nazis are suitably dastardly, and while they’re fully realised characters, some of them (Eidinger in particular) invite a fair amount of uncomfortable empathy. It’s peculiar to see Nazis flirting with their Nazi co-workers, going on work outings (about the grimmest picnic imaginable) – and yet ensuring the systematic annhilation of the Jewish people was their work, and concentration camps were often their workplace.
The film is unexpectedly funny, with some regrettable lurches towards melodrama that could have been better handled, or omitted entirely. The same goes for the painfully signposted teaching moment – as if there was any doubt that the Holocaust was a bad thing. Director Vadim Perelman doesn’t innovate, although it’s admirable to find a unique perspective on an oft-told period in history. Persian Lessons brings some curiously disparate elements to the fore, but it does so harmoniously and entertainingly.
Persian Lessons does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch a clip from Persian Lessons here: