“Persian Lessons”, which was Belarus’ official submission to Best International Film Oscar in last year but then was disqualified due to its technical ineligibility, is about one man who survives the Holocaust via a mock language invented by himself. Although the movie does not escape much of its genre conventions, it is fairly engaging to watch how he manages to concoct that mock language bit by bit for his survival, and that compensates for the conventional aspects of the movie at times.
The story, which is set during the World War II period, mainly revolves around a young French Jewish lad named Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), and the movie opens with Gilles and many other Jewish people being taken to a spot where they are all going to be killed. At the last minute, he pretends to be a Persian via a book he happened to acquire right before that, and that draws the attention of a German officer named Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), who happens to be quite eager to learn Persian for a little personal reason.
Once Gilles is taken to a concentration camp where Koch stays, Koch has Gilles work in a kitchen in the concentration camp along with several other Jewish people, and he also demands Giles to teach him Persian during next several months. Because the possibility of his survival depends a lot on Koch, Gilles has no choice but to agree to do the lessons for Koch, though he does not know any other Persian word besides “baba” (It means “dad” in Persian, by the way).
Because Koch wants to learn at least 20 Persian words per one day, Gilles must find a way to concoct and then memorize “Persian” words to be taught to Koch. While initially becoming quite panic and desperate, Gilles soon come to find his own way. At first, he simply invents words for the objects in the kitchen, and then, as handling the list of the names of all those Jewish people sent to the concentration camp, he gets one little brilliant idea. Based on those names on the list, he makes his fake words via his own simple word system, which surely helps him memorize and then teach all of them to Koch (A Russian philologist at Moscow State University was hired to make around 600 hundred fake words for the film, and these words were actually based on the real names of documented victims of the Holocaust).
The lesson scenes between Gilles and Koch in the film are the most interesting part of the film. While Gilles tentatively doles out each of his fake words, Koch eagerly try to memorize them all because he does not know anything about Persian from the beginning. As a matter of fact, he later shows a little poem based on those fake words he learned, and he surely shows Gilles that he is a good student who does not miss much from his accidental tutor.
However, that still does not change the fact that Koch can just let Gilles killed at any point, and Gilles is reminded of this grim fact everyday. While he is not sent to Poland where many other Jewish people are transported and then killed, he has to see those doomed folks come and then go at the concentration camp, and he feels more conflicted as reminded again and again that there is nothing he can do about that.
In the meantime, Gilles has to focus more on his survival as he is still suspected by not only Koch but also several other German figures in the concentration camp. At one point later in the story, there comes an unexpected peril via one certain new prisoner, and that naturally generates some suspense, but the screenplay by Ilya Tsofin, which is partially inspired by the 1977 short story “Erfindung einer Sprache” (It means “Invention of a Language” in German, by the way) by German writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase, resorts to a little too easy resolution in my humble opinion.
During the last act where everything eventually falls apart for the German characters (Is this a spoiler?), the movie becomes more predictable than before, and that is where my level of interest was decreased a lot. In addition, many of the main characters around Gilles and Koch are more or less than bland stock supporting characters to be despised or pitied, and a subplot involved with two Jewish brothers with whom Gilles gets involved during this part is superficial without much dramatic weight.
Anyway, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, an Argentine actor whom you may remember for his memorable performance in Robin Campillo’s “BPM (Beats per Minute)” (2017), dutifully carries the film as ably handling three different languages as required. His solid lead performance is matched well by the effective acting from Lars Eidinger, and Eidinger wisely does not overplay his character’s loathsome sides while also not making any excuse on his character. While it is rather amusing to observe Koch’s sincere passion toward learning Gilles’ mock language, we are also chilled by his casual attitude to what he is assisting everyday at the concentration camp, and he is surely another example of the banality of evil.
Director/co-producer Vadim Perelman, a Ukrainian-Canadian-American filmmaker mainly known for his powerful debut film “House of Sand and Fog” (20003), did a fairly competent job, but “Persian Lessons” is still less impactful than many other notable Holocaust movies such as “Son of Saul” (2015). On the whole, it just mildly intrigued me instead of really engaging me on the emotional level, but I did not feel like wasting my time during my viewing at least, so I will let you decide whether you should check it out or not.