THE STORY – Gilles, a young Jewish man in a concentration camp, has his life saved when executioners realise he owns a Persian book. Brought before a camp officer who wants to learn Farsi, Gilles agrees to teach him despite not knowing a word of the language.
THE CAST – Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, David Schütter, Alexander Beyer, Andreas Hofer, Leonie Benesch & Giuseppe Schillaci
THE TEAM – Vadim Perelman (Director) & Ilya Tsofin (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 127 Minutes
It can be quite a powerful exercise to witness one’s perilous journey of survival. Depending on the circumstances, it can be a harrowing experience that brings forth the truest emotions a person can showcase. It demonstrates the tenacity of personal will to tolerate the most unbearable of circumstances to finally achieve an elusive realm of safety. Stories that have focused on the survivors of the Holocaust are ones that strive to display such courageous acts in the face of unspeakable evil. It’s a testament that, despite the seemingly infinite iterations that have already been produced, there are new perspectives from this dark chapter that are worthy to still be explored. “Persian Lessons” takes a look into yet another corner of this unsettling moment in time, and its results can be effective if occasionally stunted.
The setting is 1942, and the Nazis have fully occupied France. Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) has been captured with a group of other Jews being transported for execution. When the moment comes, he narrowly escapes this fate. This is because, through a chance series of events, he comes into possession of a book written in Farsi. The German officers assume he is Persian and immediately take him to the concentration camp’s director, Koch (Lars Eidinger). Koch has been on the lookout for lessons in this language, and Gilles, now going by Reza, assumes this role. The concerning issue is that Gilles does not know this language at all and now must carefully maneuver his way by inventing words to teach. The bond between the two is strained and distant, but a strange rapport develops, all while the looming threat of unmasking is ever-present.
There is a reserved nature to the filmmaking from Vadim Perelman, and it mostly serves to underline the chilling horrors of this hellish environment. The somber and stark mood highlights the weight of such atrocities being committed with such nonchalant attitudes, and in that regard, it is successful. At the same time, that restraint also holds back much of the emotional impact of this narrative. While the simmering tension and foreboding anxiety are compelling to a degree, the storytelling often struggles to create a wholly captivating portrait. The blunt characterizations are made even less appealing by the shallow examinations of the personal lives of the camp’s other soldiers.
To the film’s credit, it does start to become more engaging in the second half, as if a confidence suddenly takes hold and some nuances are analyzed. As Gilles becomes more commanding with his invented language, so too does his relation to Koch. He becomes more willing to fight back, in the smallest of ways, against the banal evil while also relishing slightly in this newly acquired skill. The momentum does have trouble sustaining its newfound energy throughout the finale, even though it does end on a particularly commanding note. It is just unfortunate that the impressive sequences are only sprinkled in between those that feel rigid and flat in their presentation.
Biscayart’s presence here exudes a timid yet strong perseverance in the face of daily torture, and it’s one that he carries with an engrossing aura. Admittedly, it is rather limiting at the start as he inhabits a man who is fiercely driven by one goal without many gradations to portray. However, he soon becomes a more alluring figure, and the acts of bravery manifest in more complex ways. His performance matches this tone well, especially by the ending’s notable catharsis. Yet, the more impressive performance belongs to Eidinger, who possesses a frightening atmosphere that is equally disturbing yet strangely beguiling. One sympathizes with his desire to long for a more fulfilled life while being repulsed by his complicity in such malevolence. One never quite knows if he will dish out charm or venom, which makes his portrayal so intriguing. The scenes he shares with Biscayart are some of the film’s best, and a large part of that is due to his steely mood.
The intentions of “Persian Lessons” are incredibly noble in their effort to exhibit yet another tale of perseverance through unimaginable sights. However, it mostly accomplishes this task through competent but unremarkable means. One is consistently interested in such characters and their plights, but the execution struggles to wholly involve them in a more meaningful manner. The performances of the two leads are good, and there are enough elements to feel connected. However, it doesn’t quite present an innovation in its story that sets it apart and ultimately becomes a respectable entry in this series of familiar explorations.