Review | ‘Persian Lessons’: Scheherazade in a concentration camp

(2.5 stars)

In the framing of the folk tale anthology “One Thousand and One Nights,” Scheherazade prolongs her life day by day with the stories she tells her murderous husband. Something similar, and similarly fanciful, happens in “Persian Lessons,” a film by “House of Sand and Fog” director Vadim Perelman. The notable differences between the old fable and this new one are that the film’s protagonist prolongs his existence by teaching his potential killer words in Persian, or Farsi — a language he doesn’t know — and that the backdrop for his desperate undertaking is the Holocaust.

The fake-language instructor is Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a French- and German-speaking Belgian Jew who’s caught in a Nazi roundup. By happenstance, Gilles has just acquired a bilingual French-Farsi book of Persian myths, which inspires him to declare that he’s half Persian and not Jewish. This claim spares him immediate execution, because one of the soldiers knows that a superior officer, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), wants to learn Farsi in hopes of moving to Tehran and opening a restaurant after the war.

This seems to be the moment to note that “Persian Lessons” says it’s “inspired by true events.” That may be true, but many of the details supplied by screenwriter Ilya Zofin (working from a story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase) are hard to swallow. The movie is much more compelling as a parable of communication and remembrance than as a realistic account of survival in a Nazi concentration camp.

Gilles, who assumes the name Reza, is taken to a work camp that’s also a transit center for prisoners on their way to the Nazi death factories established in Poland. He begins to concoct his own version of Farsi for Koch, who gullibly learns the words his prisoner invents. To keep this gibberish straight in his own mind, Gilles starts associating his made-up terms with the names of his fellow inmates.

Koch, whose own name mean “cook,” oversees the camp’s kitchen, where Gilles is given a job. (It beats breaking rocks, which is what most of the prisoners do every day.) Gilles has neat penmanship, so Koch has him enter the records of the prisoners, supplanting a messy fraulein (Leonie Benesch). She becomes one of Gilles’s several enemies among the Germans, and yet the bogus Persian survives. He’s repeatedly protected by Koch, who despite occasional doubts about his tutor maneuvers to keep him alive through episodes that would surely have proved fatal in real life.

Koch’s enthusiasm for the language he thinks he’s learning is sometimes comic, as are other aspects of the story. When not brutalizing inmates, the Germans banter about romantic aspirations and a senior officer who’s said to be less than well-endowed. There are violent moments, of course, but they’re discreetly underplayed.

Shot mostly in deeply shadowed interiors, the movie rarely makes effective use of its widescreen format. Indeed, it has a stagy quality and plays mostly as a series of theatrical exchanges between Gilles and Koch. These are handled adeptly by Pérez Biscayart, a versatile Argentine actor best known for the French AIDS drama “BPM,” and Eidinger, a German also known for a French film, “Personal Shopper.” The two multilingual performers are appropriate stars for a film made in Belarus by a Ukrainian-born Canadian director.

If the filmmakers are timid about the horrors Gilles witnesses, and may potentially experience, they do build to a surprisingly moving coda. Ultimately, the mnemonic device Gilles employs to retain his phony Persian is turned to another purpose. To reveal that purpose would spoil the movie’s most powerful scene, but it might be said that “Persian Lessons” ends with a sort of prayer for the departed.

Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Contains violence, brief partial nudity, sexual banter and smoking. In German, French, Italian and fake Farsi with subtitles. 127 minutes.

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