Persian Lessons a film by Vadim Perelman

October 4, 2021


Survival by creating a language. This powerful film is based on the short story ‘Invention of a language’ by German writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase and true events. 

In 1942 to survive being shot by the Nazi firing squad a Belgian Jew poses as being Reza, a Persian. It happens that the SS Commander Klaus Koch ordered his subordinates Max and Paul to look for a Persian prisoner. Max doubts Reza’s ethnicity and fanatically pursues his endeavour to prove himself right. 

Koch wants to learn Farsi to open a restaurant in Teheran after the war is over. To stay alive Reza uses his resourcefulness and invents a language based on the names of the detainees that he must record in the German book register.

Until the German surrender in 1945, between 25,000 to 30,000 Jewish prisoners pass through the concentration camp in revolving manner. While the prisoners are shot German officers and the administrative staff dine, wine, and sing. Against the backdrop of the camp’s inhumanity and the surfacing fractures in the Nazi hierarchy, the dynamics between the persecutor Koch against the victim Reza changes. Reza becomes the teacher, and Koch the pupil. Koch interposes Reza’s fate of being shot on a few occasions. Eventually Koch achieves his pinnacle by reciting his poetry to his instructor. 

Reza’s memorising the names and identities of the thousands of murdered victims to create a gibberish language runs like a Leitmotiv through the film. It forms the basis of the understanding between the unwitting persecutor and his victim, who is walking on a tightrope between life and death. The sobering ending left us pondering about human nature.

How far would you go in a fight for survival? Today there are still countries in which similar circumstances pose this eternal question to unfortunate individuals and groups of people. What have we learned as human species? A topic well worth considering.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as Reza portrays the fear, dilemma, and glimmer of the victim’s hope convincingly. Lars Eidinger is brilliant as brutal, cruel yet kind and sentimental Koch. Jonas Nay as Max is ruthlessly spine tingling in his pursuit of Reza. Andreas Hofer as Commander and Leonie Benesch as Max’ love interest complement the outstanding cast.

The faded denim-coloured tones of Vladislav Opelyants’ cinematography convey the brooding and unsettling mood of the action. 

The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020. It runs currently in Brisbane cinemas. 

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