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Persian Lessons review - confusing Holocaust drama | reviews, news & interviews

Persian Lessons review - confusing Holocaust drama

Persian Lessons review - confusing Holocaust drama

Ukrainian film doesn't add much to the genre

Lars Eidinger as Hauptsturmführer Klaus Koch, hankering to open a German restaurant in Tehran

This is an odd film, made even odder by a caption near the beginning, which claims it is "inspired by true events" but doesn’t elaborate. Produced in Belarus, it’s a Holocaust drama based on a novella by the veteran East German screenwriter/director Wolfgang Kohlhaase but made by the Ukrainian director Vadim Perelman.

Perelman had quite a success in 2003 with House of Sand and Fog, but since then seems to have mainly worked in television.

Persian Lessons tells the far-fetched story of a young Jewish man from Belgium, who when captured in France in 1942, manages to survive by convincing an SS officer in a transit camp that he is not really Jewish and can teach him Persian. Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger) dreams of opening a German restaurant in Tehran after the war and wants to learn the language. All the prisoner has is a book of Persian stories to back up his claim to Iranian heritage and the ability to memorise the made-up words he passes off as Farsi.

The transit camp is supposed to be in France and its purpose is to ship prisoners east to the concentration camps, although they also perform forced labour in a nearby quarry. The camp's exact location is extremely vague, but it's probably based on Natzweiler-Struthof in mountainous Alsace  – the surrounding landscape is all misty forests. For an excellent documentary on this camp, it's worth tracking down The Man Who Saw Too Much. But in this fictional rendering, the camp's entrance bears the Nazi slogan, Jedem das Seine ('To Each His Own'), which was infamously displayed at the gates to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, but did not appear on any of the transit camps in France. It may just be a small error by an overenthusiastic art director, but it speaks volumes to the filmmakers' willingness to crank up the Holocaust atmospherics.The great Schaubühne actor/director Lars Eidinger is very watchable in the role of Klaus Koch, a mid-grade SS officer in charge of the Nazis' kitchen. There are shades of Ralph Fiennes' performance in Schindler’s List as sadistic Amon Göth, but as the film develops, Koch becomes more nuanced and less of a caricature of evil. Meanwhile the Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (above centre) plays the linguistic conman as something of an archetypal desperate prisoner. He’s excellent at producing tortured glances but doesn’t develop much else in the way of expression over the movie's two-hour duration. Despite being the hero, he remains two-dimensional; we learn far more about the back-story and psychology of his Nazi opponent.

This is a very much an actors’ two-hander, few other characters get developed in any way. There are younger German soldiers who resent Koch’s protection of his ‘Persian’ tutor, but no other Jewish prisoners are given a chance to be anything other than generic victims. This is ironic as the film is bookended with the message that remembering the names of those who were killed in the camps is of paramount importance. Persian Lessons isn't as powerful or original as recent Holocaust films, particularly Son of Saul and The Painted Bird. Even more intriguing than the vague "based on true events" opening caption is the special thanks at the end to Roman Abramovich and Eugene Schvidler.  

A small error speaks volumes to the film's willingness to crank up the atmospherics

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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