Survial Instincts

Vadim Perelman is the Kiev-born filmmaker who made a huge impact with his 2003 film House of Sand and Fog, which gained three Oscar nominations. He returns with Persian Lessons, an adaptation of Wolfgang Kohlhasse’s short story about a Jewish man (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) living in Nazi-Occupied France who claims to be a Persian to escape death in the concentration camps. He’s forced to continue this elaborate lie and use his wits when he’s instructed to teach the camp commander Farsi.

ASFF: How did Persian Lessons begin?
VP: The screenwriter, Ilja Zofin…when he was a kid, 15 years old, in the Soviet Union, he read somewhere, in a Soviet magazine, a blurb. It was like three or four sentences. That said a concentration camp prisoner survives by making up a language and teaching it to one of the guards. That’s all. He carried it with him his whole life. He’s now 60-something and he lives in Berlin. But he grew up in the Soviet Union. And he can’t remember where he saw it. It’s just one of those things that you read early in your life that stays with you. And then he wrote the screenplay, in the recent past, and then we realised, as we’re starting production, that this was a short story. What he read was a short story written by Wolfgang Kohlhasse. It’s called Invention of a Language, and it was published in 1952 in East Germany. And as you can imagine, we went ‘Holy shit!’

ASFF: So were you able to contact his estate?
VP: He’s alive. And he’s doing well. So we bought the copyright from him and showed him the script and got his blessing. And so that’s where the story came from. Whether Wolfgang Kohlhasse was inspired by true events, you have to ask him, but to me, it’s not that unbelievable that that kind of thing could have happened because there’s many crazy stories…of love between prisoners, stories of escapes. Because there’s so many people statistically, there have to be a few out-there stories.

ASFF: Which Holocaust films have been meaningful to you?
VP: Son of Saul was great. And I love the braveness of it. And I love the power of it. I really do. I didn’t want to do that, though. I thought of Life Is Beautiful, which I’m not a huge fan of. You know, I thought maybe it crossed the line. Almost like the Jerry Lewis movie that never got released. The Day The Clown Cried. And then you have Jojo Rabbit…you know what that is? The Tin Drum. I can’t believe nobody ever made the connection between the two. The kid is so similar. But The Tin Drum is a much better movie.

ASFF: Films like Jojo Rabbit do attempt to explore World War II with humour…
VP: I wasn’t trying to use humour. That’s the crazy thing. I was pleasantly surprised by how much laughter there was in the screening in Berlin. And I wasn’t worried because I think the more emotion an audience can feel, the more the final message [makes an impact].

ASFF: You made House of Sand and Fog back in 2003, which was Oscar-nominated. Has it been hard to launch international projects since then?
VP: Yeah, people forget about you. Like, they’re calling this film a big comeback. It’s like that LL Cool J song [‘Mama Said Knock You Out’]: Don’t call it a comeback! I’ve been here for years. I’ve had a horrible string of luck with Poltergeist and Atlas Shrugged, but I don’t need a long list of movies on my IMDB page!

Persian Lessons is available on demand from 22 January. For more details click here.

James Mottram