Sheldon Kirshner

Persian Lessons

Desperate times call for desperate tactics. Vadim Perelman’s skillfully-crafted feature film, Persian Lessons, which opens in Canadian theaters on June 16, explores this theme from a unique perspective.

Supposedly inspired by true events, and based on a short story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, it unfolds in Nazi-occupied Europe and turns on an extremely unusual relationship between a captive Belgian Jew and an SS officer in a German transit camp.

Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), the son of a rabbi, is the lone survivor of a mass shooting of Jews in a forest clearing in France in 1942. He owes his miraculous survival to a brazen lie. Calling himself Reza Joon, he masquerades as a Persian Muslim and claims to be of mixed Iranian and Belgian ancestry.

Koch (Lars Eidinger), one of the camp’s commandants, orders him to speak Farsi. A chef by training, Koch wants to learn Farsi so he can open a German restaurant in Tehran after the war. Quick on his feet, Gilles obliges Koch. In fact, Gilles does not know a single word of Farsi. The words and phrases that tumble out of his mouth are nothing less than gibberish.

Not knowing the difference, Koch assigns Gilles to a cushy job in the kitchen and arranges for daily lessons in Farsi. Koch wants to learn four words a day and 2,000 by the end of the war. A belligerent fellow, he warns Gilles he will kill him if he is deceiving him.

Gilles finds himself in a precarious and potentially dangerous situation. Not only is he obliged to make up new words each day in a pseudo language, but on pain of death he must memorize his fake vocabulary.

Gilles’ survival scheme does not fool Beyer (Jonas Nay), a skeptical German guard in regular contact with Koch. A bitter antisemite, he warns Koch that Gilles is not a Persian because, as he crudely puts it, he looks and smells like a Jew. Koch rejects his supposition and curtly dismisses him.

Still convinced that Gilles is a genuine Persian and a fine teacher, Koch gives him a position to register new Jewish arrivals in the camp.

Gilles’ effort to keep track of the multitude of words he has taught Koch is daunting. When he forgets a word and Koch senses he is lying, he beats him up and transfers him to backbreaking work in a quarry.

By chance, Gilles finds his way back into Koch’s favor, and the pair develop what passes for a friendly relationship between an oppressed Jew and his Nazi tormentor. Their bond arouses the suspicion of Koch’s commanding officer and elicits jealousy among the Jewish inmates.

Nonetheless, Koch remains personally attached to and dependent on Gilles for lessons in Farsi. Incredibly enough, he gradually transforms himself into Gilles’ unexpected protector.

Biscayart and Eidinger deliver subtle performances in their respective roles.

Inevitably, Gilles is worn down by his subterfuge. His deception seems on the cusp of collapse when a real Persian, a downed pilot in the British air force, arrives as a prisoner of war.

Perelman never provides a viewer with a clear picture of Gilles’ factual back story, and so he remains a cipher. This begs the question whether a character like Gilles even existed. I have never read of a Nazi camp inmate who survived by his wits in this peculiar fashion. But even if Gilles is a figment of Kohlhaase’s imagination, he is certainly a clever and intriguing figure, a Jewish prisoner who bamboozled a Nazi officer.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,