With some interesting and beautiful choices, Persian Lessons starts on a solid and original premise that does not always successfully deliver throughout the film.
While Persian Lessons is certainly neither the first nor the best film to be made on the Holocaust, the movie manages to capture some interesting and original aspects in its retelling of one of the most tragic events in our modern history. Persian Lessons is particularly striking when we realize that it depicts a story that is very much rooted in reality. All its characters and villains did actually exist, and the tragedy that permeates throughout the film is one that truly happened. However, some of the choices the movie makes do not always prove to be successful when dealing with such a delicate subject matter.
Based on true events, Persian Lessons follows its main character, Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) – who later goes by Reza – as he is captured by German soldiers and taken to a concentration camp. In order to survive, Reza claims he is not Jewish but, instead, Persian. This ends up saving his life, as the Deputy Commandant of the cam, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), is looking for someone to teach him the Persian language to fulfil his dream of moving to Tehran after the war ends. In order to stay alive, Reza has to invent Persian words every day, and remember them, as he teaches Koch a completely made-up version of the Farsi language.
Visually, Persian Lessons delivers its story with haunting cinematography by Vladislav Opelyants. The absence of colours throughout the film creates he eerie atmosphere of the concentration camp, without necessarily showing a lot of the violence and horrors we all know happened there. In fact, a lot of that is suggested by the sounds of shooting or by shot-reverse-shots of Reza’s reaction to such violence. The film mainly focuses on its protagonist: Persian Lessons opens with Reza running away from the camp. Throughout the movie, the attention remains on him through multiple close-ups rather than showing the concentration camp in its entirety.
The most striking element of Persian Lessons is the theme of remembrance. While desperately trying to make up and memorize words and their meanings in Farsi as he teaches Persian, Reza starts using the names of the prisoners and adapts them for his purposes. This enables him to learn a high volume of names, just as many as the words in Farsi Kosh believes to have learned. This becomes particularly significant in the final scene. As Reza starts reciting all the names he has learned, in a highly emotional scene that mirrors the beginning of the film. As such, he is able to remember every single life the Holocaust tried to eradicate, as he has met most of the people of whom he recalls the name.
Where the movie fails, however, is the focus on the German soldiers. While it is understandable that Koch and other soldiers of the SS would be involved in the plot of the movie because of its very premise, Persian Lessons does feature them too much for my liking. By giving such a detailed, and perhaps even redeeming to some level, backstory to Koch and including further plotlines with German soldiers, the film crosses the line of humanizing these characters responsible for such horrendous acts a little too much. While Reza himself points out how Kosh, and all the German soldiers, are murderers, the focus on their story undermines the overall movie and its message.
The film is also an interesting reflection on languages. Not only does the audience hear multiple languages spoken in the camp, such as German, French, and Italian to name a few, but the movie also delivers a lesson in linguistics. As Reza has to literally come up with a language he does not know, it is fascinating to see how he uses words and sounds from his everyday life to create the presence of a language neither of them is actually familiar with. As such, it raises the question of how a language is born: is the pretend Farsi Reza made up now a language because at least two people can speak and communicate with it fluently?
Persian Lessons would have perhaps benefitted from a tighter focus on its protagonist, sacrificing all the plotlines including the German soldiers. However, Persian Lessons remains a strong film, one that is much elevated by its superb acting, particularly by Biscayart who delivers a powerful and emotional performance as Reza. Overall, Persian Lessons treats its delicate subject matter with respect, while also creating a compelling and high-stakes plotline.
Persian Lessons will be released in US theaters on June 09, 2023. In the UK, the film is available to watch on digital and on demand.