HIt is a Holocaust survival drama superbly performed, albeit disturbingly politely, by Ukrainian filmmaker Vadim Perelman. This is the story of a Belgian Jew named Gilles (Nahuel PÃ©rez Biscayart), who stays alive in a transit camp pretending to be half Iranian and teaching Farsi to a savage SS officer, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger). In truth, Gilles does not know a word of Farsi; the language he invents is gibberish, and he lives in constant terror of slipping, of forgetting one of the words he made up – nearly 600 in six months.
The film opens with the phrase “inspired by real events”, but given the plausibility issues here, it is surely safe to prefix this statement with “very vaguely”. 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 con artist by nature, Gilles easily – too easily – persuades the Nazi officer Koch that he speaks Farsi. Koch is a trained chef and dreams of opening a restaurant in Iran after the war. Suspecting Gilles of lying, he scolds him, with ridiculously easy questions: “What is the capital of Persia?” “What language do they speak?”
Persian Lessons is more believable as a psychological study – and, if a performance can save a film, it’s Biscayart’s portrayal of Gilles. With his gaunt face and perpetually stunned expression, he is the embodiment of the Primo Levi man who knows no peace, who lives by yes or no. But Perelman goes light on the audience. He refrains from describing anything too heartbreaking – there is nothing here that is too brutal or too upsetting to take your gaze away from the screen. This fable about language and memory is an unsettlingly easy watch – though it overwhelmed me in the devastating final moments, unexpectedly acquiring great depth and serious purpose.