January 19, 2021
Claiming to be inspired by true events, the story of a young Jewish man who stays alive by pretending to be half-Iranian strains credibility
Persian Lessons review – hard-to-believe Holocaust survival drama
Here’s a superbly acted, though worryingly polite, Holocaust survival drama by the Ukrainian film-maker Vadim Perelman. It’s the story of a Jewish man from Belgium called Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who stays alive in a transit camp by pretending to be half-Iranian and teaching Farsi to a savage-tempered SS officer, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger). In truth, Gilles doesn’t know a word of Farsi; the language he makes up is gibberish, and he lives in constant terror of slipping up, forgetting one of the words he’s invented – almost 600 in six months.
The film opens with the line “inspired by true events”, but given the plausibility issues here surely it is safe to prefix that claim with “very loosely”. 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 hustler by nature, Gilles easily – too easily – persuades Nazi officer Koch that he speaks Farsi. Koch is a chef by training and dreams of opening a restaurant in Iran after the war. Suspecting Gilles of lying, he grills him, with laughably easy questions: “What is the capital of Persia?” “What language do they speak?”
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