By Ali Moosavi.
Many people are unhappy about me humanizing the Nazis and making the viewer even sympathetic (a Nazi)…. I wanted to show that we are all capable of that, not only the Germans. I don’t think that’s ever been shown in any of the Holocaust movies; only in books.”
There have been numerous movies about the Holocaust. From award winning dramas such as Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002) and Son of Saul (2015) and black comedies such as Life is Beautiful (1997) which directly dealt with life at the concentration camps to films such as The Pawnbroker (1964) and Sophie’s Choice (1982) which examined the impact of having been a prisoner at these camps on lives of characters after the war. Films have looked at the Holocaust from so many angles and so many different personal stories have been told about this tragedy that it would appear difficult to come up with a fresh, untouched Holocaust story. But in Persian Lessons (2020), Ukrainian director Vadim Perelman, whose debut film was the multi Oscar nominated House of Sand and Fog (2003), does tell an original story.
Gilles (Nahuel Biscayart) is a young Jew being driven with other Jewish prisoners by German soldiers to an unknown destination. Another prisoner offers Gilles an ancient Persian book in exchange for his sandwich. Though the book is of no use to him, Gilles agrees to the exchange more as pity for the prisoner. When they reach their destination, it transpires that it is a place of execution and one by one they are shot dead. Before they can shoot Gilles dead, he holds the book up and shouts, don’t kill me, I am not a Jew, I am Persian! Lucky for Gilles, it happens that a senior German officer called Koch (Lars Eidinger) has been searching for a Persian to teach him Farsi (the Persian language) and has promised food and wine to any soldier who finds and brings him such a person.
Gilles is brought to Koch, who asks him to teach him a few Farsi words every day. Koch’s brother lives in Tehran and Koch’s plan is to go to Iran after the war and open a German restaurant there. Since Germany and Iran were on friendly terms during World War II, this desire appears perfectly acceptable. Gilles of course doesn’t know a word of Farsi and finds an ingenious, and at the same time poignant way, using the names of the Jewish prisoners, to invent a fake Farsi language. The interplay between these two is at the core of the film. Perelman spices up the film with some tension by making one of the soldiers and his girlfriend, who works for Koch, suspicious of Gilles’s ethnicity and nationality. Perelman and his screenwriter Ilja Zofin deal with themes such as human capacity for survival, empathy and friendship between Jewish prisoners and how blind obedience and submission to dictatorship can turn normal people to cold-blooded killers. Koch represents such normal people. A rather gentle, cultured man who has become a pawn in Hitler’s killing machine.
I talked to Vadim Perelman about Persian Lessons.
In the beginning of the movie it says, “inspired by real events”. Do you know which parts or how much of it was actually true?
It was written as a short story called The Invention of Language in 1952 by the East German author Wolfgang Kohlhaase. The concept was the same, a fake language being invented in order to survive in the camps. The details and the whole connection to the names of the camp prisoners wasn’t there. So, I don’t know what the inspiration for the story was and we never did find out, so I just said “inspired” which means things like this happened, perhaps not exactly like what’s depicted in the movie but similar things happened all the time; they were detailed in the history of that era. There were many incredible tales of survival, love in the camps, friendship between guards and prisoners. I mean it’s not so farfetched to think that it couldn’t have happened.
Well we’ve seen many movies based on real stories where Jewish prisoners for example played music for the guards or things of that nature just to stay alive.
Amazing stories happened during at those times. Bruno Schulz, who wrote The Street of Crocodiles, was kept in Drohobych Nazi ghetto and had a very similar story. An SS officer got Bruno Schultz to paint frescoes for him on the ceiling of his family house. This kept Schulz alive until he was shot dead by a Gestapo officer in 1942.
Choosing the Persian language is interesting. Not all the viewers may know that Iran was on Germany’s side during the World War II and also both nations boasted to be of the Aryan race, so they had a lot in common. This would explain why the other officers didn’t question Koch bringing this guy who claims to be Persian. At the end of war, the Allies removed the pro-German Shah and put his son on the throne.
This would explain the ending of my film.
I’ve seen three of your movies. In House of Sand and Fog you deal with a personal tragedy. In The Life Before Her Eyes you deal with a community tragedy as a result of a Columbine type massacre, and now you deal with a global tragedy. Are you attracted to tragedies?
My ex-wife happens to be Persian and her father called me the “tragician”! So I guess I’ve been becoming a bigger “tragician” as I get older! But I would call House of Sand and Fog the American Tragedy. It is more indicative of the immigrant tragedy and how they lose themselves through the process of immigration. The Life Before Her Eyes was really about friendship and honor and what would you do in that situation and if you made the wrong choice, how you would regret it. Regarding Persian Lessons, I don’t think I’m finished with the Holocaust yet but this one just came around as an inspirational story. Many people are unhappy about me humanizing the Nazis and making the viewer even sympathetic to Koch and think too bad he got fooled by that language. I wanted to show that we are all capable of that, not only the Germans. I don’t think that’s ever been shown in any of the Holocaust movies; only in books. In pretty much all of Holocaust movies the Nazis are portrayed as killers, as robots, as somebody who just yells and shoots. Once in a while they drink a little Schnapps, or they’re very maudlin like Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. But nobody’s ever seen that they loved; that they cared for their kids. Some German films had that. Who are these people that woke up every morning and went to the office? He would put on the SS uniform, his wife would come and wipe the dust off his shoulder and say what time will you be back for dinner and he would say well it depends how many units they would bring today. They lived like that and didn’t even call the prisoners people, referring to them as “units”. This guy would kiss his kids goodbye and would go and kill thousands of people that day, but with these people, it was their calling. That’s what I wanted to show, I think that is what Hannah Arendt tried to show in The Banality of Evil. It’s like they just followed their orders and just did their job. That was the thing that I wanted to say the with this film, that we are all capable of it and must be careful.
All three films of you that I mentioned were adapted from books and you served as a producer too. Did you select the books yourself for adaptation?
The first two yes but this was a find. I normally read the book and if it speaks to me then I will go and option it with my own money. This is what I did with the first two. I will make it with help of actors, crew, financing, packaging, so I produced the first two that way. With this one a Russian producer gave me a stack of film scripts. This script was originally written in Russian, and I chose it and said I’d like to do it. Then nothing happened for two years until I got another producer involved who was very instrumental in getting the film made.
How long did it take from the time that you got the script to completion of the shooting?
Almost three years. So that’s why I think it’s important for me to choose the right project. That’s why I’m so choosy and make very few films, because I have to live with it for such a long time and I could make so many of them in my life.
You have a very good cast in this film, Nahuel Biscayart (120 BPM) as Gilles and Lard Eidinger (High Life) as Koch are excellent. How involved were you in the casting process?
You should ask if the casting director was involved! I am very hands on with everything. I chose the cast, my wife helped quite a bit – she loves helping me with casting. We put together a long list of people who are authentic and spoke the language too.
Nahuel Biscayart is Argentinian. Did he know German?
I forgot to ask him actually! He’s Argentinian and knows French very well and obviously Spanish but he didn’t know a word of German. The night before the next day’s shooting Lars Eidinger would teach him how to pronounce German words and then they would go and film a scene where Nahuel would teach Lars how to pronounce fake Farsi words!
How much of the invented Persian language was in the script and how much you and the cast made up?
In the script it just said pseudo-Farsi in brackets before the dialogue lines and then said what it wanted them to say. The script was in Russian which I translated into English and then somebody translated it to German. We gave it to a linguist philologist in Russian State University in Moscow with a list of actual names, like 400 names or something like that, who were actually documented Holocaust victims, I think from southern Europe because the camp in the film was supposed to be in France. I said here’s the script, here is what they need to say. I want you to come up with a vaguely Eastern sounding language that kind of sounds like Farsi/Hebrew, and I also said that then I want a dictionary, but I want it done correctly. I don’t want you to just take a name and make it work. I want this fake language to have verbs, adverbs, etc; like if I were to write another script in the same language, say the continuation of their story, I want them to be able to say different words. So he did he come up with this beautiful thing which I first heard through the speech of the actors when we were just reading the script and I liked it a lot. I would use tiny little things like Adonay means God in Hebrew, so Onay meant love. I have a full dictionary which I might publish one day.
You had to keep a very fine balance between a hugely tragic event and lighter moments in the movie like the girls making fun of the officers. How difficult was being mindful of the tragedy and at the same time deal with those scenes?
It’s always scary to make a movie and I think that it’s interesting that you should notice that. It’s the bravest thing that I ever had to do because for me, being Jewish, it was very scary to cross that line. Because it is holy; Muslim people can relate to that when you speak of Mohammed. Holocaust is like a holy event to us, whether you’re religious or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re secular. It’s something not to be made fun of, especially in public. So, it was difficult for me and I also didn’t want to make a light film like JoJo Rabbit. So for me there was one only one piece of humour, which is what you referred to and everything else was just situational, it wasn’t written for laughs. In the premiere at the Berlin Film Festival people were laughing almost throughout the whole film. They would laugh when Koch would say how do you say mother in Farsi and Gilles says Anta. They laughed and I was like what is so funny? He just made up a word. They would laugh as Koch would ask how do you say pork? Or how do you say this or that? Is it because they were sympathetic to how clever Gilles was? I can’t explain it psychologically. If you see the movie with an audience, they laugh; but I only meant for them to laugh at one point, but they were laughing all the time. So for me it was a little bit off putting but I don’t think it’s the wrong kind of laugh. I think it’s sympathetic, it’s almost like a laugh of relief to release the tension.
Did you do a lot of research about the concentration camps and things like that?
I did. It’s been very much an area of interest for me. I’ve read books about the Holocaust my whole life. I’m pretty educated on the subject. That’s what I’m saying that this film will not be my last Holocaust film.
Did you have a lot of rehearsal with actors before shooting?
No, I never have rehearsals. It’s like having a really good racehorse and riding it around before the race. To me it makes absolutely no sense. You already know it’s going to run really fast and just riding it around in circles before the race to me is a waste of time.
Where was the film shot?
In Belarus in a town which used to be predominantly Jewish until the Nazis came and shot them all, possibly in that same place where we shot, which used to be a prison camp. It was a very heavy atmosphere and a very miserable shoot, awfully cold, dirty, the hardest shoot I’ve ever had.
The technical aspects of the film, the cinematography and specially the editing are very impressive. How involved were you in the editing?
I’ll show you. (Perelman takes out his iPad and shows me photos of him behind the monitor in various editing suites). I’d be sitting there with the editor with my monitor in front of me. I was editing this movie in Moscow and Paris.
Did you change a lot of things during editing?
I changed everything. There was a whole section in the script of a love affair between the commandant and this Jewish girl which I thought was banal and threw it all away, we didn’t shoot that. There were scenes that I shot and threw out. There was a great scene of Gilles telling a fairy tale in that fake language, a long scene where he was crying and all that. There was a great scene right after Koch rescues Gilles from going to Auschwitz and brings him back to the camp. In the movie they just walk back and then explosions happen and the liberation of the camps and Gilles starts to escape. But there was a scene where Koch walks Gilles right back into his office, sits him down and says keep writing and Gilles, who’s now sitting in Koch’s seat, shoves the book back at him and says no. Koch says why not? And Gilles says the reasons are all in here, in the book. Koch says what do you mean? and Gilles says read the names. You’ve been eating what I’ve been cooking for you for the last three and a half years, read the names. Koch goes, what names? Gilles replies, the names in the book and he starts reading the names and Koch closes the book and says I don’t want to even think about it.
That may have given the game away.
Yes, it would. It was a great scene and I shot it. It would eliminate the Tehran scene at the end.
How is Persian Lessons being screened?
It’s all over the world. Just started to screen in Italy. It had a really great run in Germany until cinemas closed and they’re waiting for them to re-open to have a rerun. In China it was on something like 19,000 screens which happens very rarely, and was very successful. In Spain it was number two movie, even above Wonder Woman 1984, which is doing well for a film that was very low budget and is why we shot it in Belarus. In America it’s coming out in the fall.
I’ve noticed that there’s suddenly been a wave of Iranians posting articles and comments about the film in the social media.
Obviously, the film’s title immediately attracts all the Iranians and especially coming from you who made House of Sand and Fog. They think this guy has a fixation with our country and language!
Fixated but cannot read or write Farsi!
House of Sand and Fog was your very first feature film and it is very unusual for somebody for his first feature film to have such a big studio film with major actors and actresses. How did you know suddenly jump into that level?
There’s a great anecdote in in Russia and it talks about a collective farm where there’s a woman who milks cows and she is simple and fat and suddenly they’re trying her in a one of those courts in Stalin’s time and they say Maria Ivanova, an incredibly successful and productive cow milker, how did you become a simple prostitute for foreigners? and she gets all red faced and says I don’t know guys, just got lucky I guess! Maybe that’s how I can answer your question!
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).