The German/Russian/Belarusian movie Persian Lessons begins with a title card telling us that the movie was inspired by true events. Opening credits also tell us that the movie was based on a story by German screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase.
As things stand, we're left to guess where inspiration leaves off and fact begins, a problem for a film that deals with a subject that suggests heavy historical obligations.
Director Vadim Perelman tells the story of Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a Belgian Jew who, along with a group of Jewish captives, is about to be shot by German soldiers. Gilles pleads for his life by insisting that he’s Persian not Jewish, an Antwerp resident of half-Iranian background.
As luck — or massive contrivance — would have it, a German officer at the transit camp where the soldiers are based has made it known that he wants to find a Persian prisoner who can teach him Farsi. The soldiers deliver Gilles to the officer (Lars Eidinger), who lays out the rules under which Gilles, who now calls himself Reza, will fulfill his instructional duties.
Eidinger’s Koch has a personal reason for his request. He plans to move to Iran after the war, join his brother, and open a German-themed restaurant or maybe he’s just looking for a post-war escape hatch.
Gilles, of course, knows nothing about Farsi and must make-up a fake language to trick Koch into keeping him alive. He also must remember what he’s told Koch so that he doesn’t expose his ruse.
Gilles' system for memorizing his verbal inventions turns out to have significance beyond the poor man's survival and, in a way, provides some justification for what we’ve been watching.
Biscayart creates a character burdened by the anxieties of mastering the calculations that will keep him alive. Eidinger has the more difficult job of making Koch credible.
At a couple of points, Gilles is almost exposed but the screenplay contrives to rescue him. Luck, of course, can play a role in life but drama is another matter.
As for the Farsi lessons, they seldom seem convincing; Koch limits his understanding of Farsi mostly to the accumulation of nouns. Tree. Table and such. We're reminded of the way toddlers learn language through the repeated naming of objects, but the lessons don't seem to go much beyond that.
Persian Lessons works best as a disquieting portrayal of the relationship between a Nazi officer and his prisoner; that relationship softens as Koch begins to see Gilles’ humanity, particularly when it becomes clearer that the Germans are losing the war.
Despite interest generated by the uneasy relationship between its two main characters, Persian Lessons falls short. Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) relies on a premise that seems too shaky to support a film about a such a daunting subject.
Persian Lessons doesn’t t`otally collapse but it wobbles under the weight of the contrivances required to keep it going.