Persian Lessons review – hard-to-believe Holocaust survival drama

Claiming to be inspired by true events, the story of a young Jewish man who stays alive by pretending to be half-Iranian strains credibility

Here’s a superbly acted, though worryingly polite, Holocaust survival drama by the Ukrainian film-maker Vadim Perelman. It’s the story of a Jewish man from Belgium called Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who stays alive in a transit camp by pretending to be half-Iranian and teaching Farsi to a savage-tempered SS officer, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger). In truth, Gilles doesn’t know a word of Farsi; the language he makes up is gibberish, and he lives in constant terror of slipping up, forgetting one of the words he’s invented – almost 600 in six months.

The film opens with the line “inspired by true events”, but given the plausibility issues here surely it is safe to prefix that claim with “very loosely”. The setting is France, 1942; Gilles, the son of a rabbi, is transported to a transit camp with other Jews caught trying to flee to Switzerland. A hustler by nature, Gilles easily – too easily – persuades Nazi officer Koch that he speaks Farsi. Koch is a chef by training and dreams of opening a restaurant in Iran after the war. Suspecting Gilles of lying, he grills him, with laughably easy questions: “What is the capital of Persia?” “What language do they speak?”

Persian Lessons is more credible as a psychological study – and, if a performance can rescue a film, it’s Biscayart’s portrayal of Gilles. With his gaunt face and perpetually stunned expression, he is the embodiment of Primo Levi’s man who knows no peace, who lives by a yes or no. But Perelman goes light on the audience. He refrains from depicting anything too harrowing – there’s nothing here too brutal or upsetting to make you look away from the screen. This fable about language and memory is a troublingly easy watch – though it floored me in the devastating final moments, unexpectedly acquiring great depth and seriousness of purpose.

• Persian Lessons is on digital platforms from 22 January.

Contributor

Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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