All Holocaust survivors seem to have stories of inexplicable moments of good luck that helped them stay alive and also other times when they took bold, sometimes crazy steps that paid off in the end. The new film Persian Lessons is playing throughout the country and tells a particularly far-fetched survival story. Although a preface claims it is based on a true story, there are no titles at the end that affirm this or show pictures of the real person on whom it is based. There usually are in movies that are real-life stories and audiences may be forgiven for being skeptical as to the truth of this extremely contrived story.
Directed by Vadim Perelman, who made the very effective drama The House of Sand and Fog, a drama about how the American dream can go sour, this unique Holocaust tale is based on based on a short story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase. It is about Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a rabbi’s son from Antwerp, who survives when all those around him are shot by Nazis. Pleading for his life, he takes out a book of Persian legends and poetry, which he just traded a sandwich for a few minutes before the shooting, and claims to be Iranian, insisting that he was rounded up with these Jews by mistake.
The cynical Nazis are certain that he is making it up and are ready to kill him, but an often sadistic but intellectually curious official named Koch (Lars Eidinger), who oversees the processing of new prisoners in a transit camp in occupied France, has long dreamed of learning Farsi and jumps at the chance to study with Gilles, who claims to be named Reza. Koch, it turns out, was a master chef before the war and dreams of opening a restaurant in Tehran after the war, a place he has always found exotic and fascinating, and where his brother lives.
Gilles has no knowledge of the language, but pretends he does in order to save his life and eagerly accepts the job of teaching Koch, who hopes to become fluent before the war is over. Instead of being sent to a death camp, Gilles is allowed to work in the kitchen and eat food most inmates can only dream of. But there’s a catch: He has to make up a language that he can convince Koch is Farsi and teach it to him. And there’s an even bigger catch: He has to remember every word he teaches the Nazi, as if he has known it all along.
Each lesson becomes a game with potentially deadly consequences as Gilles struggles to invent and memorize nonsense words, knowing that any misstep can mean the end for him. As their lessons continue, Gilles becomes a kind of trusted servant of the Nazi officers at the camp, even going along to serve them on outdoor parties. Koch is not particularly valued by his superiors, who wonder why he would want to leave the Reich after the war. Their skepticism makes Koch even more determined and he presses on, trying to master the gibberish he believes to be a language.
The more you think about it, the less plausible the story is. That Gilles would acquire a book in Farsi just before coming across a Nazi desperate to learn the language defies all logic. But when I said this to a German friend after we saw this movie at the Berlin International Film Festival, she responded by telling me the story of a great uncle of hers who survived the Holocaust by a strange piece of luck, although one that was not quite as unlikely as the story in this movie.
The point is, survival stories often hinge on coincidences and how much you can accept the ones in this movie is very personal. The less you think about it and the more you allow yourself to be caught up in the drama, the more you will enjoy this film.
The two leads are among the most acclaimed actors in Europe. Lars Eidinger, who starred in the television series, Babylon Berlin, Faking Hitler and Sense8, is convincing as a somewhat insecure Nazi. Nahuel Perez Biscayart is an Argentinian actor who is best known for the drama of gay life, BPM (Beats Per Minute), and he has been acting in mostly French movies for the past few years. He is a distinctive and very gifted actor, who has a likable, sad sack presence and he was wonderful in the World War I drama See You Up There.
As incredible as the plot of Persian Stories may sound, Biscayart makes it so much more watchable than it would have been with virtually anyone else in the role. He makes Gilles into a completely credible character. You forget the weird plot contrivances and are consumed by his terror.