PERSIAN LESSONS by VADIM PERELMAN: a story of survival and how a fictional language overcomes interpersonal and interethnic prejudices
Courtesy of Vadim Perelman
Vadim Perelman is a director whose debut film, House of Sand and Fog, got three Oscar nominations. In 2020, he released a new movie — Persian Lessons.
Vadim was born and raised in Kyiv, lived in Italy, has a Canadian passport and a United States residence permit, but often lives in Prague. He calls himself a man of the world and says: «Please write: a director. That’s all».
Huxleў published an interview with the director after the film’s premiere at the Berlinale, and now we invite readers to reflect, through the prism of Persian Lessons, on how language can become the main tool for overcoming interpersonal and interethnic prejudices.
WHAT IS THE PERSIAN LESSONS FILM ABOUT?
The movie was made based on a script by Ilya Tsofin, written after Persian for a Kapo short story by the German screenwriter and playwright Wolfgang Kohlhaase. The film is set during the Second World War, in 1942.
Trying to flee from occupied France, Belgian Jew Gilles Crémier (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Beats Per Minute) encounters a Nazi firing squad. To avoid execution, he pretends to be a Persian and is sent to a concentration camp, where he is put at the disposal of the German officer Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger, Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper).
Koch is a chef by profession. He dreams of reuniting with his brother (who fled far from the Nazi hell to Iran) after the war and opening a restaurant in Tehran. But, unfortunately, Koch does not know Farsi, so the «Persian», who miraculously ended up at the concentration camp, could not have come at a better time. Crémier is pushed to give Koch lessons of Farsi, a language he actually doesn’t know. However, he has a wonderful memory and imagination to think it out.
In fact, he is forced to learn it in parallel with his student. An intense linguistic duel unfolds in front of the audience, in which a person’s life is at stake. The initially highly suspicious Koch is gradually soaked up with confidence in his teacher. He likes the beautiful oriental language so much that he even begins to write poems in it.
Koch does not realize that the «Persian» derives most of the roots of the pseudo-Farsi from the modified names of the prisoners. After the Allied troops take over the concentration camp, the fictional language helps to establish the names of several thousand people killed by the Nazis. Crémier and the language he invented become a receptacle for memory about them — a kind of linguistic monument to the victims of the Holocaust.
WHAT IS IT LIKE, THE REAL FARCY?
In Persian Lessons, the pseudo-Persian plays the role of a kind of lingua franca — a dialect common to people whose native languages are completely different. Like the Medieval Latin or modern English. And exactly the same role — lingua franca — was played at one time by the real Farsi for the Middle East, Central and South Asia. Melodic and figurative, it was the language of high culture, which was spoken by the elites in a number of countries.
Apparently, for a Nazi officer, whose consciousness is poisoned by the idea of racial superiority, Persian was chosen in the film as the subject of study for a good reason. What other language should a true Aryan speak, if not the ancient Indo-European language of «Aryan origin»?
The absurd and artificial nature of the racial theories of the Third Reich is thus set off by the «fake nature» of the camp-based Farsi, which is taught to a representative of a higher race by a fake Persian.
Today there are approximately 6-7 thousand languages on the planet, with about 30% serving as a means of communication in a population of no more than a thousand people. However, the situation with Farsi is different; in fact, it is the language of international communication, although it is not formally recognized as such.
Contemporary Persian is spoken by 125 million people around the world: in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, and, besides, there are numerous Persian-speaking groups in Iraq, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Armenia, Israel, and Turkmenistan.
It has had a huge impact on the lexical stock of many languages. For example, the word «paradise», which is understandable to almost the whole world thanks to the mediation of the English language, is of Persian origin. The importance of Farsi for the development of world culture and civilization afforded ground to European linguists as early as 1872, at a congress in Berlin, to recognize it as the world classical language — along with ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit.
LANGUAGE OF LOVE
There is certain special attitude to words in Abrahamic traditions. The prophetic word reveals the will of God to people and brings life, love, and salvation to the world. There is one character in the Persian Lessons who has no connection with the logos — he is dumb. So Gilles Crémier, «creator of the language», who commands the vocabulary, becomes his savior and protector.
That is, at the concentration camp, the word becomes (and not metaphorically, but in a real way) equal to life for the characters of the film, an Ariadne’s thread that saves from death and hell. The language invented by the «Persian» kind of creates the world of people anew, turning, in fact, into a certain «New Testament».
In the space of «Farsi», as it were, there is a restoration of the natural state inherent in the world before the Fall from grace. In this world, in strict accordance with the preaching of the Gospel, «there is neither Jew nor Greek», but «the lion lies down with the lamb» — «Farsi» blurs the line between a German and a Jew, an executioner and a victim. Language humanizes even the «absolute evil» — we observe how human traits that we understand are gradually emerging in the SS man Klaus Koch.
It is no coincidence that the creation of language begins with love. The first coherent sentences uttered by the characters in «Farsi» are about love: IL ONAI AU («I love you») and IL BAR ONAI AU («I love you too»). The German and the Jew (the lion and the lamb) seem to confess their love to each other, and after that a real «chemistry» appears between them.
The language of love is also capable of «creating an imperishable memory» of the deceased prisoners of the concentration camp, and even, actually, of resurrecting them. The resurrection of the lost name here is tantamount to the resurrection of a deceased person. The history of mankind in the Abrahamic religions ends with the resurrection of the dead.
And in the same way the story of hatred, which was defeated by Love and the Word, ends in the film. Evil is once and for all expelled from the human world «into outer darkness», the metaphor of which is the «Iranian prison», where Koch is sent at the very end of the story.
It is worth reminding that the first recorded artificial language was the «language of angels» by Hildegard of Bingen, a saint of the 12th century. What makes perfect sense is that superhuman entities cannot speak the language natural for the nations inhabiting the earth. Crémier, therefore, combines in himself not only two languages, but also two identities — a real earthly person with a very specific ethnicity and a «Persian» who is «not of this world».
«Farsi» in Vadim Perelman’s film is one of the many artificial languages that mankind has invented. A professional linguist created it specifically for this movie at the request of the scriptwriter and director. He took as a basis the Chinese grammar, which is one of the simplest in the world. But at the same time he instilled a surprisingly accurate oriental sound of the «Persian» words, which is quite logical, given that the new language, as it turns out, is not hidden somewhere, but inside Jewish surnames («The Kingdom of God is within you»).
The irony is that a distrustful SS man cannot even imagine that this language, replete with diphthongs and affricates unusual for the German ear (real Farsi indeed has such a feature), is in fact «racially impure«. It is interesting that the «new language» in the film arises as a consequence of the interethnic contact between a German and a Jew, exactly following Leibniz’s idea that «languages are formed through the intercourse of different peoples with one another».
The German philosopher was the first to bring up an issue of the possibility of creating an artificial «alphabet of human thoughts» and of reconstruction of the universal «Adam’s language», which is able to eliminate the difficulties of understanding and unite all of humanity. Leibniz gives some of the earliest examples of such experiments, although earlier attempts were made back in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
The methods of the first creators of artificial languages resemble the principles followed by the linguist who invented the language for Persian Lessons. One of the inventors mentioned by Leibniz was some «Armenian Dominican». Based on Latin, he invented a very simple language, which had no cases, no tenses, and no inflexions. The second artificial language known to Leibniz was created by the French Jesuit Philippe Labbe, who also relieved Latin from «unnecessary» rules.
Since then, the triumphant march of artificial languages around the world has not stopped. They even got their own classification and had real followers. The phenomenon of artificial languages is becoming the subject of more and more close attention of scientists. And this interest is quite far from being idle.
DEMIURGIC BOOM AND DOMESTICATION OF THE «OTHERS»
In one of the versions of the Persian Lessons finale, which was never included in the film, 15 years after the war, Crémier and Koch met each other, being the only two people on the planet who were carriers of the unique camp-based «Farsi». Everyone has heard about Esperanto — the most famous artificial language, which is native to about 2,000 people.
But perhaps the most successful and ambitious project is Hebrew, the language of the ten-million-people state of Israel, which researcher Ghilad Zuckermann believes is a Semitic-European hybrid. And, of course, the artistic worlds became the main area of existence of artificial languages: the elvish language of John Tolkien, the gnome one of Terry Pratchett, and the Ardritian one of Stanisław Lem, as well as languages specially created for the Avatar movie, TV series Star Trek and Game of Thrones…
The postmodern paradigm gave birth to a «demiurgic boom». It is assumed that every speaker today can become the creator of his or her own language. Construction of artificial languages becomes the work of an increasing number of enthusiasts. For example, in the USA there is even a Language Construction Society uniting several dozens of such «constructors».
As in the case of Persian Lessons, artificial languages can become a way of the world cognition and solving important worldview, cultural, and psychological problems.
Language is the main tool for constructing fictional worlds, which makes it possible to create a spiritual culture for these worlds that overcomes interpersonal and interethnic barriers, prejudices, and stereotypes of perception of «us» and «them».
Read the full interview with Vadim Perelman in the material