Berlinale 2020 “Persian Lessons”: Film Review

A somber variation on the already dark tale of Scheherazade and her thousand and one nights, “Persian Lessons” is an inspired yet risky take on the banality evil.

Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) has miraculously survived a mass shooting by Nazi troops and finds himself in a heart-stopping situation. Dare he continue with the lie that has just saved him? Does he have the strength, resourcefulness, and memory to keep going with a surreal charade? He has just escaped death by shouting out that he is Persian, not Jewish, soon after exchanging his last sandwich for an old Persian book in a chance encounter with another captive.

The irony of his fate is this: a senior officer in charge of food procurement at a nearby transit camp, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), had asked that should anyone Persian be captured, they should be brought to him. If this was a request half made in jest, there was nevertheless a serious intent to it. Koch, a former professional cook, plans to join his brother and open a restaurant in Tehran after Germany has won the war – or so he says. He asks Gilles, who now calls himself Reza, to give him Persian lessons, in readiness for the next chapter in his life.

The system Gilles/Reza devises, to teach a dangerous man a language he himself does not know and must now invent, turns out in due course to be of profound significance, an echo of “Schindler’s List”. In another reminder of Spielberg’s film, and perhaps also of Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter”, thought fainter, an uneasy, asymmetrical intimacy develops between captive and captor. It’s an intimacy that is neither love nor lust, but rather a very limited sense of kinship founded in forced invention on one side, and a pleasure in learning on the other.

This closeness becomes clear in scenes of heightened but mixed emotions, one brutal, when Koch explodes in ugly, violent rage, and the other oddly moving. It takes place when Gilles, out of sheer goodness, but also maybe out of exhaustion – because perhaps certain death seems better than the daily terror he endures as he struggles to keep Koch captivated with new words – takes someone else’s place on the journey to the extermination camps.

Lars Eidinger ensures that Koch’s character never deviates, that one cannot bring oneself to warm to the man he portrays, however absorbing and enjoyable it is to watch and drink in his performance. A sense of irony that underpins the whole film becomes at one point almost ribald when a scurrilous rumour about his masculinity is spread among his peers. This is deftly handled, funny, and telling.

Koch is smart. He is also a brutal opportunist, a profiteer, corrupt, venal and worse – and trapped too, aware of it. Anyone can be accused of treason. He knows, too, that Germany will collapse. He is not a true believer in the cause that animates the horror he helps perpetrate, and if he doesn’t accord Gilles full personhood, neither does he entirely deny it.

His language teacher is his route to freedom but also his possession. In a rare moment, Koch stops to consider Gilles’s interior life, his motivation. Gilles tells him frankly, man to man, what he thinks – truth to power. In that fleeting moment one wonders if, just for that fraction of time, Gilles has briefly ceased to be just a means to an end for Koch. But the latter is robustly mercenary and self-serving, intelligent enough to know that he could have chosen not to be actively complicit in the unforgivable, and yet…

This is something that Gilles never forgets. He knows what he means to Koch, that he is a signifier of freedom, but he also knows not to ever, ever relax into that knowledge. Wide-eyed trauma and wariness are perpetually etched onto his face.

With a subject as immense, harrowing, forbidding as the Holocaust, how does one dare tell made-up stories about it, and especially such a fantastical, hard-to-believe story, so clearly a riff on Scheherazade’s tale, just with words instead of stories?

Screenwriter Ilja Tsofin had started on “Persian Lessons” after hearing a secondhand, purportedly personal, anecdote. He found out only later that the tale had originated from a fictional story by German writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase.

Why set this story against the background of the Holocaust, when the central drive of the story is not necessarily specific to the Holocaust, but to any captive surviving under murderous tyranny?

For a German writer, perhaps it is to help ensure that ‘Nie Wieder’ – Never Again, remains an eternal promise. The lesson is to be told and understood a thousand and one times, and then another thousand and one times, to infinity.

For the filmmakers, it is also perhaps an allegory, about this and other deadly tyrannies made possible through the complicity of banal, petty, self-serving others. Self-serving meanness is a recurring theme in “Persian Lessons”.  Gilles’ tale of survival demonstrates time and again how the pettiness of banal individuals fuels their inhumanity. But there is a troubling side-effect to this, in that it potentially absolves them too – an issue that also arose when Hannah Arendt famously commented on the ‘ordinariness’ of Adolph Eichmann, during his trial in Jerusalem.

What Arendt termed the banality of evil was denounced and disputed on various grounds – a misunderstanding of the man, ignorance of his beliefs, confusing the respective moral weights of intent and outcomes… While Eichmann may have appeared to her, at one time, as banal, ordinary, mild and bureaucratic, there was another, very disturbing reality to him that she did not see at that time. There were also the consequences of his actions. And he had been a man of fierce and specific hatred, acting with clear intent.

It makes one wonder, when watching “Persian Lessons”, if this is in fact a story influenced by Arendt’s comment. The idea of banal evil, in the form of Klaus Koch for example, here a catering administrator with ambitions of escape who is also the perpetrator and abettor of something terrible, infinitely wrong and cruel.

So – what is the outcome of those Persian lessons? How does it end, this tale of meek Gilles, creator-of-new-words, and his fearsome student Klaus, commandant-cook-and-worse? See this very watchable, absorbing film, which closes with sorrows but also with a far more satisfying finale than Sheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights, and you’ll find out.

Directed by Vadim Perelman
Written by Ilja Tsofin (Zofin) after a story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase
Cinematography Vladislav Opelyants
With Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Lars Eidinger, Jonas Nay, Leonie Benesch, Luisa-Céline Gaffron

Lars Eidinger makes a cameo appearance, as another thoroughly reprehensible character, in another film reviewed by KinoSelect, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away


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