A Belgian Jew trapped by the Nazis in occupied France becomes indispensable to a cruel officer in a forced labor camp. Persian lessons tell a harrowing tale of deception and survival under the most horrifying of circumstances. Humanity’s worst instincts are on vivid display in a bleak environment fueled by anti-Semitic hatred. A callous disregard for life is intriguingly contrasted with personal subplots. Murderous oppressors engage in petty normalcy while committing systemic genocide. You will cringe in disgust when the enslaved protagonist is almost beaten to death at a picnic lunch.
In 1942 France, Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is thrown into a truck full of people. A hungry captor asks for something to eat. Gilles has a sandwich but is reluctant. He agrees to trade for a book on Persian mythology. The truck stops on the way to the camp. The prisoners hand over their luggage before being riddled with bullets. Gilles screams to avoid execution. He yells that there has been a mistake: he is a Persian, not a Jew. Gilles presents the book as evidence.
SS soldier Max Beyer (Jonas Nay) doubts the prisoner’s veracity, but perhaps fate has intervened. The deputy camp commander, Hauptsturmführer Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), promised ten cans of meat for a Persian. Gilles is brought before Koch as he berates his secretary for his incompetence. Elsa (Leonie Benesch) brushes him off bluntly, but she catches Max’s wandering gaze.
Director Vadim Perelman (House of sand and mist, life before your eyes) creates tension with harsh truths. Gilles can never make a mistake. He knows what awaits prisoners in concentration camps in Poland and Germany. The Nazis are ruthless in their methodology. Gilles needs every drop of intellect, strength, and willpower to keep up the facade. He must ingratiate himself or die. Koch feeds into this subservience as an outlet to express carefully guarded feelings. Gilles is surprised when Koch waxes poetic about love and friendship. It’s hard to imagine a monster having feelings.
Violence with sincere severity
There is never a bright moment. Fog envelops the muddy camp. The screen is awash in sombre brown and gray tones as the prisoners work hard. Their crowded barracks, the only respite, is a dirty den of despair. Nazi social gatherings are similarly depicted. The monotonous festivities offer neither joy nor radiance. Perelman’s cinematography and editing choices are well thought out.
World War II and Holocaust movies can seem mundane. Persian lessons it presents violence and barbarism with candid severity. Nothing is exaggerated or free. The movie reminded me of Roman Polanski’s. The pianist. It does not reach that grandeur but it certainly captivates.
Persian lessons It has dialogues in German and French with English subtitles. It is a Hype Film, LM Media, ONE TWO Films and Belarusfilm production. There will be a limited theatrical release on June 9 in New York and Los Angeles, followed by national distribution from Cohen Media Group.