Based on a short story by a German writer, the film Persian Lessons is a joint German-Russian-Belarusian production released in 2020 that has now made its way to American theaters. Mario Naves finds it “an ingenious picture” whose story nonetheless “doesn’t altogether suit the gravity of its context.”
[The movie’s] main storyline is deftly introduced, tensely elaborated upon, and brought to an almost Zen-like resolution. Still, this solid movie is, in the end, oddly unsatisfying, being a showpiece whose bravura denudes it of moral currency.
The film begins with Nazis rounding up Jews in occupied France circa 1942. A wiry young man named Gilles (the Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is among those herded onto the back of a truck for a destination unknown but a fate guessed at by all. The man huddled next to Gilles offers a valuable book as barter for the sandwich Gilles has squirreled away in the pocket of his overcoat. The inside of the book is inscribed in Farsi. This chance encounter provides the seed of an idea by which Gilles hopes to evade certain death.
He does so by claiming that he is not Jewish but, in fact, Persian. The guards responsible for the execution of their prisoners, hearing this news, hold their guns. The commanding officer, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), is on the lookout for a Persian. A peculiar request, you might think, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Koch is a former chef who dreams of opening a restaurant in Tehran upon the Third Reich achieving world dominion, . . . and he wants Gilles to teach him the language. Whereupon Gilles and Koch play an extended game of cat-and-mouse. Gilles, the rabbi’s son who doesn’t know a lick of Farsi, begins inventing words to teach his keeper.
Persian Lessons is no mean entertainment—it is, in fact, quite gripping—but one’s disbelief is tested more than is ideal for a movie that takes on quite as much as this one.