When Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is arrested by the Nazis and put on a train to a concentration camp, he has every reason to believe his life is over. It’s 1942 in Nazi-occupied France, and all of her fellow Jewish travelers are making peace with their inevitable deaths. When a stranger on the train begs him to trade half a sandwich for a book of Persian myths, he makes the deal out of sheer charity more than anything else.
That chance meeting that kicks off “Persian lessons” ends up saving his life, as Gilles is the only passenger spared. Apparently, the Nazi officer who controls his fate has “searched for a Persian”. Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger) is already thinking about the end of the Second World War: the former chef plans to move to Tehran and open a German restaurant in the desert. But before he can do that, he needs someone to teach him to speak Farsi.
Gilles is nowhere near Persian, but the Jewish Frenchman’s complexion allows him to pass for Middle Eastern. Sensing a possible lifeline, he poses as a Persian and agrees to start teaching the Nazis a language he doesn’t know.
The wily prisoner soon realizes that making up words that sound vaguely foreign is enough to fool the dim-witted guard. After working long shifts in the kitchen, the two men study by candlelight while Gilles helps Klaus memorize gibberish. Over time they begin to communicate with each other in a completely invented code, with Klaus finding himself moved by the beauty and complexity of what he thinks is the Farsi language.
Gilles begins to receive more favorable treatment in the camp, avoiding physical labor and saving himself “trips to Poland” from which no one ever returns. At some point, the consequences of what he’s doing begin to weigh on him. Gilles doesn’t have much of a choice, as any other course of action would result in certain death. But as he takes care of the camp accounts and watches other men being killed in order to live, there’s no avoiding realizing that he carries a sliver of complicity. Even men with no options can be saddled with doubts about their ethics.
The chance circumstances that lead to the opportunity to save Gilles’ life create an Asghar Farhadi-style moral dilemma that serves as the film’s core. There are countless movies that do a better job of implicating the Holocaust, but Vadim Perelman’s film succeeds when it explores the lengths humans are willing to go to ensure their own survival. Cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants combines this effect by shooting the film with a fairytale realism that accentuates the idea that we are watching a fairytale. And Biscayart gives a deeply moving performance as Gilles, using the most subtle facial expressions to convey the way he never stops scheming even though he is deeply broken by the horrors he endures.
But Holocaust movies always require a delicate balance, with the two generally accepted approaches being the brutality of “Schindler’s List” and the blatant satire of “JoJo Rabbit.” ‘Persian Lessons’ is neither, existing near the difficult middle ground famously occupied by films like ‘Life is Beautiful’. It’s an old-school period piece that’s likely to appeal to mainstream art house audiences, but it veers at times into a feel-good narrative that can feel dull when you consider the horrific backdrop of WWII. The intentions are undeniably good, but there is an unintended grossness to the idea that a concentration camp inmate should be responsible for teaching a Nazi how to see his prisoners as three-dimensional human beings.
Luckily, while the script flies too close to the sun on multiple occasions, it never fully transforms into the worst-case scenario. Screenwriters Ilja Zofin and Wolfgang Kolhaase more or less just land with a morally ambiguous ending that questions whether it’s ever possible to make deals with the devil, even when your very survival is in danger. But the lesson for filmmakers isn’t dissimilar to what Gilles learned with Klaus: there’s no way to truly triumph in an unwinnable game.
“Persian Lessons” is now playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, with a nationwide release in the coming weeks.