Vadim Perelman’s Holocaust drama, inspired by true events, begins with its strongest sequence. As Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is transported alongside fellow Jews to an undisclosed location, he ends up swapping half his sandwich for a bilingual French-Farsi book of Persian folk tales with a desperate fellow prisoner. As the SS guards gun down the prisoners, Gilles uses this book to convince them that they have it wrong: he is Persian, not Jewish – and it just so happens that the concentration camp’s head cook is looking for Farsi lessons. What follows is often painfully tense, as Gilles renames himself Reza and is forced to create his own language without being detected.

Unfortunately, this opening is the only time Persian Lessons lives up to its potential. The film is too scattered to give this extreme psychological torment its due and it is too reliant on sentiment rather than the stakes at hand. A prime example of both is a bizarre subplot involving a romantic triangle among the Nazi guards: it is largely played for laughs, has only tangential relevance to Gilles’/Reza’s central plot, and occasionally feels like it is trying to elicit sympathy for the spurned lovers. The degree to which Nazis should be humanised in film has been a recent hot topic, and Ilya Zofin’s script seems to make a case for understanding while also adding comic relief. That said, the scenic design and cinematography are impeccable, often stunning, and the final sequence provides the film’s only justified comedy.

Persian Lessons is ultimately too saccharine and sentimental to make any meaningful point about Nazi brutality or survival under fascism, and too stuffed with side plots to elevate the central stakes. While supported by strong performances and excellent production design, it feels an odd, if not ill-judged, entry to the canon.



CAST: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, Leonie Benesch, Alexander Beyer

DIRECTOR: Vadim Perelman

WRITER: Ilya Zofin

SYNOPSIS: A young Jewish man tells the SS he is Persian to escape the firing squad, but then he is assigned to teach Farsi to the camp’s chief cook.