With its long-awaited American release, Persian Lessons tells the story of a French Jewish man whose life has his life spared after surviving a firing squad. He is brought to a concentration camp and there, he must follow through with the lie that saved his life about knowing the language of Farsi and teaching it to a high-ranking official at the camp. Director Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog, 2003) chatted with Borrowing Tape about the origin of the story, the tonal shifts, and the process of making a film that takes place during the Holocaust. Persian Lessons is currently showing in select cinemas and is available to rent/buy on PVOD.
Listen,watch, or read the transcript below — edited and condensed for clarity:
Okay. Vadim, I just want to thank you for coming by and sitting down with me and talking about Persian Lessons. Congratulations on everything going on with the film right now.
Thank you. Thank you very much. I'm very actually extremely pleased and surprised that after a long run in the world and actually being on some streaming platforms all over the world, Cohen Media decided to put it out in the theaters. I think it's an incredible show of their belief. I didn't expect it. It was really good surprise.
Just to kick things off for the kind of a generic question, but it's just to kind of kick things off for the sake of our readers and anyone who will be watching this interview, between you and I, who has not seen the film yet, let's give an elevator pitch for the film to the audience.
Well, it's a Holocaust movie, which actually is now a genre kind of its own, and it's a film that is different from the others because there's, like a scale of realism and maybe, like, intensity in it. And on the left side of it is Son of Saul.On the left side of it is like perhaps even Schindler's List, Night and Fog— where the viewers [are] taken by the scruff of their neck and just rubbed in the horror and the inhumanity of it all. And the other end of the spectrum is like Jojo Rabbit, perhaps. Life is Beautiful to a certain extent, even The Tin Drum, in a sense. You get kind of that periphery done with humor, done with through, sometimes even a farce. You know, where you have a comedic way of... I wouldn't say comedic, but a light-hearted approach to a very heavy subject. I guess and this is not just my words, but people say that this one's right down the middle, so that it has elements of comedy. I mean, you laugh. Elements of a thriller, drama, obviously, tragedy. And the film is — the plotline is quite simple — is that a Jewish man in northern France, [in] 1942 gets taken in by Nazis, caught, captured, and he's transported to where they're all to be shot by the SS. And in the last ditch effort, he takes out a recently procured book in Farsi, which he cannot read. He traded it for a sandwich in the truck and holds it up and says, I'm not Jewish, I'm Persian. And again, in a fluke, the Nazis go, "Stop. Don't. Stop. Stop. Don't shoot him." Because Koch in the camp for some bizarre reason, needs a Persian, and he's going to give us ten cans of meat. The reward is ten cans of meat. So they transport the guy and Koch grills him and asks him if he really does know Farsi. We don't know why he needs it yet. And he does. Passes the test. And now our main character, Gilles, is tasked with coming up with a language, faking it because he doesn't know a word of Farsi, making up a whole language, surviving by doing it, and it becomes an incredible story, like abated breath story of 'Will he survive?' Its twists and turns and so on fills up the middle of it. And then there's a very, very I'm sure viewers have read the reviews at that point. There's a very dramatic and touching ending, which is heartrending, I would say, it's not my words, but the critics, which kind of justifies what he did, that it wasn't just survival for himself. Inadvertently, he made a great heroic act and a memorial to the Jews that have perished in the war.
Yeah, agreed. Agreed. So early on, in one of the opening shots, said the film was inspired by true events. And correct me if I'm wrong and if you want to elaborate I mean, obviously this was also pulled from a short story of some sort. How did you uncover something like this?
Well, I didn't, but the writer, the screenwriter, when he was a young man, he was in the Soviet Union still. He read a short story written in East Germany by East German writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase. and it was essentially a short story, [a] 14-page short story. It was almost a sketch of what we did. It didn't have the ending, didn't have the details, but it was a prisoner teaching, in that case, Farsi. And that's it. It was just like a clever twist on things. But it was definitely inspired by that short story, our film. But I think mostly. I've searched the internet through and through for, like, a person surviving the camps by teaching a language, I couldn't find it. So that's why the word inspired is there and not based on. Right. It's justified, I think, because it was inspired by even more far-fetched events that happened in the Holocaust. A man and a woman from two different sides of the camp, falling in love through the fence, surviving, ending up together in Israel after the war. Those are all things that are incredibly unbelievable, if you think about it. So the unbelievability of the story takes it more into the fable realm. Wouldn't it be cool if this actually happened? I can't give you the name of the guy that actually went through it, but.
I do want to talk about locations, because everything at the camp, all the stuff with the soldiers, all those areas felt so lived in, to me personally. Just where was this film shot?
This film was shot in Belarus for many reasons. One was well, probably the main one is budget is that Belarus is very inexpensive to shoot in, and it made our money go very far on the screen. The budget was actually — I don't think I'm at liberty to tell it — but it was very low for what you see. And what we did is, I found this building. It was an abandoned building which had a very, very dark history. It used to be a Gestapo headquarters during the war. Then it was a KGB prison. And so I can imagine the amount of people that perished in that building. I felt it through the walls and it was completely abandoned. No windows, nothing. And it was a U shaped with a quad and this weird smokestack in the middle. And so what we did is, in the quad, we built the kitchen, office, restaurant, all the ancillary spaces of the camp we built, but the actual bare arc with the domed ceiling and the arch window, we used the second floor of that existing building, and they didn't have floorboards, so we had to put in floorboards. It was a tough shoot, man. It was winter and it was like ten degrees colder inside than it was outside in that stone walls. And just the atmosphere was very method. Yeah. Do you know what I mean?
I could tell it felt very bleak, like the color. I mean, that's some of that stuff comes post-production, but there was a very bleak, gloomy tone to it.
Right, right. That was a conscious decision with the DP.
In terms of your characters, especially your two leads. I'll touch on them a little bit, but with this preliminary question, I guess, I felt that you achieved making characters that usually would be unsympathetic or an audience member wouldn't have any empathy towards them at all. And yet there's times in the film where I don't want to say you're on that character side, but you're kind of getting that. Talk about your processes in achieving that from a director's standpoint.
Well, Achieving that was the actor's job, really, because achieving the sympathy or empathy, I would say, for the SS guys. But what first had to come was a very scary decision on my part, being Jewish, having never seen it really. Maybe read it in a few things, that the fact that the Nazis were also humans, were also human beings with love, with jealousies, with fears and all that, we never delved deep into there. They're always portrayed as just robots, evil robots. Showing the humanity, humanizing a little bit had the effect of — I think that was my theory and I was proven right, thank God — had the effect of people saying what they did is even more evil. We can't just excuse them because that's what they do. They're Nazis. That's what a scorpion, he stings. What are you going to do? Right. That turned the film from everything else that's been done before, where it was we should see this film. and the moral lesson is we could all be the Jews in the future. We could all be the victim. We could all be picked on, as the victims. But I think it turned it not only that but also, we could all be the Nazis. In a way that's kind of a moral lesson behind the thing.
I think the film really separates itself from other World War II or Holocaust movies.
Yeah, I felt like you were trying to shift away from the norm of past films of this subject. Were you intentionally trying to do that or did you draw from any past films over the last 40, 50 years, 60 years?
I have seen them all really. I never drew from, I don't really. I hate drawing from films to make a film. No, seriously, it sounds pompous, but I don't want to repeat anything you're doing. Sometimes inadvertently, it happens. But a small detail. Right. If you remember, there's not a single swastika in that camp.
Isn't that funny?
Now that you mentioned it? Yeah.
And they didn't have it. They never had it. And I checked that. They didn't have it because they wanted it. It was still a secret operation, the whole final solution. So in a way, cheesy films — sometimes good cheesy films, doesn't matter — they say, well, they're Nazis, which have swastikas all over, of course. And that's a small detail, but that kind of realism, I kind of wanted to translate to everything.
Yeah. And I wanted it to be a very drab, dirty, everything's in earth tones environment.
I got to ask about your two lead actors. Great performance, great chemistry. I don't know if roller coaster is the word of a relationship, but they do have very complex relationship.
Just talk to me about working with the two of them.
Well, I don't direct actors. I really don't. Like on set, for sure. I may adjust very slightly. For example, with Nahuel [Pérez Biscayart] who played Gilles, my only input to him was the level of fear that he exhibits on camera. And as an aside, with Koch [Lars Eidinger] not seeing it. And that was quite important because I had to gauge that. Because he goes through a progression of not giving a shit anymore. He goes through a progression where his survivor guilt kicks in and he essentially doesn't care. And he loses the fear and the power balance shifts to him at a certain point through the film and he has his ultimate comeuppance in the end. Listen, actors to me is everything. What I do with actors is I spend maybe 95% of my work with actors just casting. I take it very seriously and I take a long, long time to do it. And I have tables on the computer of actors and then sometimes I agonize over a choice between two. In this case, it was not that bad because Lars was perfect for the role and Nahuel was perfect for the role. So I didn't really agonize that much. But when I found them, I knew it was the right thing and then I just let them go. They're on autopilot after that. No, I know. Because they're the ones who...their intuition and their first take as a good actor is the best one.
What do you think this film is trying to convey in terms of themes?
Well, as I said earlier is that a larger moral theme is that not only could we all be the Jews we could also be the Nazis. I think that's kind of a statement. I guess. Hopefully, people catch that. And that's it, really. I don't want to give away spoilers here but the incredibly clever way that he does come up with the language and the resonance that it has because of what he uses to come up with the line, namely names, I don't think it's that much of a spoiler. So he built a memorial to the people that have perished by saving his own ass. If it was a film, him and the names weren't included and he just came up he was so clever. Come up with a language and remember all the words. We'd go, kind of fun, cool language. Good for him. He survived. Right. But having the resonance of the final scene, I think, makes it.
Well, all right. Vadim, thank you very much for sitting down, talking to me. Congratulations on everything going on with the film.
Thank you, Tyler. Thank you.
I look forward to any success, and I just look forward to hearing about it more down the road.