VOD film review: Persian Lessons
James R | On 29, Jan 2021
Director: Vadim Perelman
Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger
Watch Persian Lessons online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
Movies depicting the Holocaust aren’t something to enter into lightly, for viewers or for filmmakers. Son of Saul, an astonishing and harrowing journey through a concentration camp, boldly used sound to innovative and novel yet hugely moving effect. Persian Lessons uses invention and absurd humour to a similarly bold degree, but the effect is somewhat all over the place.
Directed by Vadim Perelman (The House of Sand and Fog), it follows Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a Jewish man from Belgium who comes up with a desperate plan to survive after being caught trying to flee Switzerland: he trades a sandwich for a Persian book and pretends to be part-Iranian, mistakenly identified as Jewish by Nazi soldiers. His bluff is called when an SS officer, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), reveals that, as a former chef, he hopes to open a restaurant in Tehran after World War II, and need someone to teach him Farsi.
What ensues is a series of lessons in which Gilles – who goes by the name of Reza – teaches Koch an essentially made-up language, getting him to memorise and recite nonsense words. At this point, you might start to doubt the opening titles’ claim of the film being based on true events, and there’s certainly very little plausible about the scenario – teaching a language even when you know it is tricky enough, from conjugations to grammar, and there’s never any real sense of why Koch would actually believe him.
If that makes Persian Lessons feel like a story that’s almost incidentally hinged upon the Holocaust, the film is redeemed to some degree by its cast. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart’s performance is fantastic, and his gaunt, haunted facial expression lingers with you. And so, even as the script tries to conjure up suspenseful scenarios and misjudges its tone, Biscayart makes this an intriguing psychological drama, as his dynamic with Lars Eidinger shifts and grows. And, just at the point when the whole thing stretches its own premise to breaking point, a poignant ending brings home the human tragedy with a powerful sense of pathos. What emerges is less an effective story of survival amid history’s worst atrocity and more a fable about the importance of remembering the names of those whose lives were lost, even when the translation is muddled.
Persian Lessons is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.