I don’t envy anyone attempting to make a movie about the Holocaust at this point, as these narratives have become so common that the tragedy has turned into cinematic tropes. Aside from the occasionally unexpected unique approach, like Life is Beautiful or Jojo Rabbit, films about the Holocaust have a difficulty standing out. Although Persian Lessons doesn’t attempt to completely reinvent the formula, it does have an original premise, albeit one that requires a moderate ability to suspend disbelief. What helps to sell the storyline is the subtly expressive performance by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart.
Biscayart is a Jewish man named Gilles who is arrested by SS soldiers in France during the WWII occupation and sent to a camp in Germany. The only thing saving him from death is a book traded for a sandwich, leading the soldiers to believe he is Persian. The head of the camp is a German man named Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), who longs to open a restaurant in Iran after the end of the war. Gilles survives with preferential treatment in the camp by agreeing to teach Koch how to speak Farsi, though he doesn’t actually know the language and is forced to fabricate his own.
There isn’t much depth to the story beyond this admittedly unique premise. As with most Holocaust films, there is a great deal of suspense built into a scenario where the promise of violence always looms over each encounter. Koch’s fragile ego and wicked temper only increases the danger for Gilles, not to mention the other Jewish prisoners in the camp. There are several of the tropes often found in Holocaust narratives, though they are never heavy-handed. Director Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) wisely keeps both the violence and sentimentality from overtaking the narrative. This allows the focus to remain on the characters, who feel real and fleshed out despite a slightly unbelievable premise.
Beyond the subtlety of Perelman’s direction, the highlight of Persian Lessons are the lead performances by Biscayart and Eidinger. What is interesting is the difference in approach each takes to their roles, with Eidinger allowed to chew the scenery a bit more as a volatile Nazi. Biscayart arguably has the more difficult job, often forced to draw in the audience with little more than his eyes. The building tension of the scenario plays out in a way that feels natural and never manipulative, even if those mechanics are built into the storyline.
The Blu-ray release for Persian Lessons doesn’t contain any extras, though it is a well shot film that looks even better in high definition.
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7.5/10
Historical Significance: 5/10
Special Features: 0/10