When Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is arrested by Nazis and put on a train to a concentration camp, he has every reason to believe that his life is over. It’s 1942 in Nazi-occupied France, and all of his Jewish traveling companions are making peace with their inevitable deaths. When a stranger on the train begs him to trade half of a sandwich for a book of Persian myths, he makes the deal out of mere charity as much as anything else.
That chance encounter that kicks off “Persian Lessons” ends up saving his life, as Gilles is the only passenger spared. As it turns out, the Nazi officer who controls his destiny has been “looking for a Persian.” Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger) is already thinking ahead to the end of WWII — the former chef plans to move to Tehran and open a German restaurant in the desert. But before he can do that, he needs somebody to teach him to speak Farsi.
Gilles is not remotely Persian, but the Jewish Frenchman’s complexion allows him to pass as Middle Eastern. Sensing a possible lifeline, he poses as a Persian and agrees to start teaching the Nazi a language that he has no knowledge of.
The cunning prisoner quickly realizes that making up words that sound vaguely foreign is enough to fool the dim-witted guard. After working long shifts in the kitchen, the two men study by candlelight as Gilles helps Klaus memorize complete gibberish. Over time they begin communicating to each other in a completely made-up code, with Klaus finding himself moved by the beauty and complexity of what he thinks is the Farsi language.
Gilles starts receiving more favorable treatment around the camp, avoiding physical labor and being spared from “trips to Poland” that nobody ever returns from. At a certain point, the consequences of what he’s doing begin to weigh on him. Gilles doesn’t have much of a choice, as any other course of action would result in certain death. But as he takes over the camp’s bookkeeping and watches other men get killed so that he can live, there’s no avoiding the realization that he bears a sliver of complicity. Even men with no options can be burdened with doubts about their ethics.
The random circumstances that lead to Gilles’ life-saving opportunity create an Asghar Farhadi-esque moral dilemma that serves as the film’s core. There are countless movies that do a better job of engaging with the Holocaust, but Vadim Perelman’s film succeeds when it explores the lengths that humans are willing to go to ensure their own survival. Cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants compounds that effect by shooting the film with a storybook realism that accentuates the idea that we’re watching a fable. And Biscayart gives a deeply moving performance as Gilles, using the subtlest of facial expressions to convey the way he never stops scheming despite being deeply broken by the horrors he endures.
But movies about the Holocaust always require a delicate balancing act, with the two generally accepted approaches being the brutality of “Schindler’s List” and the blatant satire of “JoJo Rabbit.” “Persian Lessons” is neither, existing near the fraught middle ground famously occupied by films like “Life is Beautiful.” It’s an old-school period piece that’s likely to please traditional arthouse audiences, but it sometimes drifts towards a feel-good narrative that can feel tone deaf when you consider the horrific backdrop of WWII. The intentions are undeniably good, but there’s an inadvertent crassness to the idea that a concentration camp inmate has to be responsible for teaching a Nazi how to see his prisoners as three dimensional humans.
Fortunately, while the script flies too close to the sun on multiple occasions, it never fully devolves into the worst case scenario. Screenwriters Ilja Zofin and Wolfgang Kolhaase more or less stick the landing with a morally ambiguous ending that questions whether it’s ever possible to make deals with the devil — even when your own survival is on the line. But the lesson for filmmakers is not unlike the lesson that Gilles learned with Klaus — there’s no way to truly triumph in an unwinnable game.
“Persian Lessons” is now playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, with a national release to follow in the coming weeks.