Occupied France, 1942. A truck full of captured Jews swap stories about failed escapes. Gilles is persuaded to trade half a baguette for a Persian story book. The truck stops, and its occupants are forced to get out, leave their baggage, and stand in a line. After a round of machine gun fire, they are all dead – all except Gilles who had the foresight to throw himself to the ground before the shooting started.
As the Nazi guards approach Gilles with guns cocked, he holds up the story book and pleads: “I’m not a Jew, I’m Persian”. He somehow manages to persuade them enough for them to take him alive to a Concentration Camp where – what are the chances? – the head of catering, Klaus Koch, is looking for someone to teach him Farsi. Koch’s brother was not a Good German and fled to Tehran before the war.
Persian Lessons is “inspired by a true story”, which are weasel words indeed. If a film is “based on a true story”, you know that it will play fast and loose with the truth, but often the most unbelievable scenes are the ones that actually happened. If it’s merely inspired by the truth, you can bet that they’re making it up as they go along.
And here’s the problem. The story is so unbelievable that it trivialises its very serious backdrop. Gilles (now going under the name of Reza) doesn’t speak any Farsi but he teaches Koch a made-up language, based on the truncated names of people who arrive at the camp. Now, I’m no linguistic expert but I’m pretty sure that shortened first names of European Jews does not sound remotely like Farsi.
The implausibility continues to the end of the film. The rest of the paragraph may be a plot spoiler so jump to the next one if you’re that way inclined. When the camp is liberated, Gilles is able to list the full names of every single one of its inhabitants because he bastardized their first names to form his made up language. When we see him asking their names in the soup queue, they don’t even tell him their surnames. Memory just does not work like that.
This may sound unduly picky, but the truth is that without the eponymous Persian lessons, this would be just a very ordinary film about a Concentration Camp which contains nothing that hasn’t been in many films before. As – with one exception – Gilles rarely talks to the other inmates, everything is mediated through him, and we experience more of his individual relationship with Koch than of the horrors of what is going on around him.
You know, I’m not sure whether there aren’t too many films about the Holocaust. Now let me be very clear what I mean. The industrial genocide of millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and others was an incomparable event in world history which should never be forgiven and never forgotten. A cinema which doesn’t attempt to explain the Holocaust would be truly irresponsible.
Yet the public memory of the Holocaust is now so mediated through film that people are arguably more likely to remember the good Nazi of Schindler’s List or the clown of Life is Beautiful than the terror of what actually happened. And every extra film that doesn’t tell us anything new is in danger of normalising something which should be very specific.
So now Holocaust films have to come with a gimmick to set them aside from the others – and if the gimmick is simply unbelievable, as it is in this case, then it drags down the whole history into the realm of a silly story. So, although we do see random and senseless killings (though these are more on the level of an action film than the gas chambers of Auschwitz) they are trivialised by the nonsense going on around them.
One last thing. We are shown the Nazi characters in everyday life. I think this is an attempt to show that it wasn’t just the hardcore Nazis who ended up working in the camps. But everyday life seems to consist of scenes from Porkys or Hi-di-Hi. The men look through the windows of the women’s showers. The women joke about the size of the commander’s penis. I’m not quite sure this is what Hannah Arendt meant by the Banality of Evil.
For all the good intentions, we end up with a film that both instrumentalizes and relativizes the Holocaust. What would like to warn us against the horrors of the past ends up making them seem like part of a bland film.
Other views are available. The film was adored by some critics when it played the Berlinale earlier this year. But some critics can be wrong.