This summer, the Holocaust drama feature film Persian Lessons has received a stateside release. The film follows the story of two men engaging in an odd relationship. A prisoner of a Nazi-governed labor camp saves his own life by lying to soldiers about his ability to speak Farsi. And it just so happens that the high-ranking official at the camp has a high interest in learning the language.
Persian Lessons starts with a brutal scene of a truckload of Jewish men and women who, by this point, have been separated from their loved ones and have an uncertain fate, and what happens next is unexpected in a Holocaust drama. We meet Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a Jewish Frenchman who trades a sandwich for an antique book written in Persian. Spoiler alert: in the scene which follows, in one swooping shot, all the people in the truck are lined up and killed. Gilles begs for his life and waves the book at the murderous soldiers, saying, “I’m Persian!” By sheer luck, he is transported to a labor camp and has to teach the man in charge there, Klaus Kouch (Lars Eidinger). Klaus, a Nazi with big plans to move to Tehran after the war and open a restaurant, wants to become fluent in the language.
There are a lot of tonal shifts throughout the movie with the help of the supporting characters.There's a sense of comedy to it at times. It does pull the veil back on these Nazis to show that despite being a part of a horrific historical act, they are also men and women with idiocracies, wants, and desires. As for Gilles, his arc does turn toward a sense of danger. He begins to teach himself Farsi to pass the information on to Klaus. One misstep or one misspelled word could mean his death. And yet there is also this nervous humor to his teaching Klaus words and phrases in Farsi. We know he's not cut out to do this, and most likely the teachings aren't accurate. But still, Klause confidently learns the language and has a sense of pride about his progress.
The melancholy of it all does oddly suck you in. Director Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) creates a colorless, gloomy atmosphere that we've seen in past Holocaust films. There’s some fat on the runtime since it clocks in at two hours and seven minutes, and twenty minutes are spent on an unnecessary subplot of a Nazi love affair with the supporting characters. The humor of it all doesn’t line up with films like Jojo Rabbit, and Life is Beautiful, but it hits unexpected notes by positively engaging with the audience.