Life & Culture

‘Being Jewish…
we were like lepers’

Film director Vadim Perelman's experience of antisemitism in his native Ukraine informs his new film, Persian Lessons, a gripping Holocaust drama


Growing up in Kiev, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vadim Perelman realised at an early age that his parents didn’t talk about being Jewish. Even so, he knew what he was. “It was part of us,” the 57-year-old filmmaker tells me over Zoom. “But, it was [like it was something] very unclean. Very unhealthy. It was almost like we were lepers or cannibals.”

He eventually got out of the USSR in 1977, and today lives in Vancouver. It was in part his experience as an immigrant which inspired his 2003 feature film debut: a harrowing adaptation of House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III’s novel about an exiled Iranian general trying to make a new life in America with his family, and fighting over a house with its former owner. Starring Sir Ben Kingsley and the Jewish actress Jennifer Connelly, the film scooped three Oscar nominations.

Perelman’s latest film, Persian Lessons, was picked as Belarus’s entry for this year’s best international feature Oscar. However, as this story was being written, it was disqualified. The reason, reported Variety, was that “it didn’t meet the category’s eligibility requirements for the majority of creative control to originate from residents of the submitting country.”

This is a pity as Persian Lessons is a gripping and unique Holocaust fable, with two compelling and nuanced lead performances, a complex central relationship, and one of the most emotionally devastating climaxes you’re likely to see in a movie this year.

For a while, Perelman was going to direct an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial novel The Painted Bird, a version of which eventually reached the screen with the Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul at the helm. Though very different from Persian Lessons, both are Jewish survival stories set during the Second World War. In each case, was it this element that attracted Perelman?

The Shoah has always fascinated him, he says, pointing at a collection of books on a shelf somewhere off-camera. And if his connection to House of Sand and Fog had been his own story of immigration, then this time it was his Jewish heritage that was calling him.

“My mum was born on July 9, 1941, escaping the Nazis,” he says. “My grandfather was away at the front, and my grandmother gave birth to her alone, on the floor of a train leaving Kiev to be evacuated, literally a couple of weeks before the Germans took the city. And then of course, consequently, there was Babi Yar [a reference to the massacre of nearly 34,000 Jews in a ravine in Kiev] and the horrors that followed in my home city.”

Years later, Perelman also left Kiev by train with his mother Zhanna. Although they travelled under very different circumstances (the Soviet regime, was “letting Jewish people go to Israel”, so “it was more voluntary, I guess”), he still felt the echoes of earlier such journeys.

“We were on a train with other Jewish immigrants and there was a certain sense of the unknown, because we were leaving the Soviet Union without any knowledge of where we were going, or the ability to return at that time . . . So, and it’s probably going to sound like a sacrilege,” he admits, “there was a certain similarity to being put on a train in Rotterdam or Amsterdam, and being taken east to a place you didn’t know, and you had the highest hopes that this was just to work. There was that smell of fear and panic. But, of course, with much less deadly consequences.”

Persian Lessons begins with a Belgian Jew, Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), narrowly escaping death by convincing his Nazi captors that he is really Persian, not Jewish. He is taken to a camp and handed to Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), the officer in charge of the kitchen, who dreams of opening a restaurant in Iran. To stay alive, Gilles must teach Koch Farsi, a language he knows nothing about, while concealing his true identity.

This sounds far-fetched, but the film works. When Gilles starts constructing words out of the names of other prisoners, the story deepens and becomes about memory and bearing witness. And as Perelman, who helped create the fake Farsi, used the names of real Holocaust victims, the very film itself becomes a kind of act of remembrance. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the director was once attached to a film of Norman Lebrecht’s novel The Song of Names.)

“Had Gilles not decided to make up the language from the names of the prisoners, his whole story wouldn’t have been interesting whatsoever,” asserts Perelman. “But the fact he uses the names means he built a monument to the fallen, whose names had gone up in smoke, and resurrects them. So it’s not simply a survival story.”

Gilles lives in constant fear of being outed as a Jew. Koch believes he’s Persian, but a guard is suspicious and tries to expose him. Perelman knows something about this. As a “curly-haired blond kid with light eyes”, he looked less Jewish than he does today, he says. And yet, when he’d play with other children, “Those bastards, they knew. And that’s always the thing that, back then, shocked me. And it still shocks me to this day. They know. How do they know? So, we’re lining up in the yard, we’re playing football, and one of the guys choosing would say, ‘I don’t want the kike.’ That was shocking to me. First, because I was somehow found out. Second, because, goddamn, why not? I’m a damn good football player.”

Perelman left the Soviet Union when he was 14 and didn’t experience how being Jewish could have limited his prospects in adulthood. “But I did see the effects of it on the lives of my mother and my late father [Valery died in a car accident, aged 32, when Vadim was nine],” he says sadly. “They didn’t have the opportunities they could have had were they not Jewish. My father always wanted to do what I do now, but he never got into the colleges, he never had the opportunities, because he was Jewish.”

It wasn’t antisemitism that made him convince his mother to go, though, but a series of deaths, between 1970 and 1972, that destroyed their family.

“We were very close, like literally,” he says. “We lived together under one roof.” In 2003, he’d described to me how he, his parents, and grandparents had all resided in a communal flat — “essentially one room” — and shared a single bathroom with around 50 people in the same block. “The joke was the toilet seat is never cold,” he’d said, chuckling. “We were very happy. There was a lot of love. A lot of books. There was walks in the park. There was laughter.”

After his father and grandparents died, everything changed. “The people that loved me were all gone, except for my mum,” he says now. “And she had gone half-crazy from grief.”

Their daily routine was reduced to her working all day, and his going to school and then standing in queues to buy something for “her to quickly throw together when she got home at eight. We’d sit for a couple of hours, then go to sleep.”

After a while, recalls Perelman, “I just said, ‘Let’s run from here. We’ve lost everything and there’s really not much opportunity. What’s the point?’”

When they applied for aliyah, it took a year to get permission to leave. “My mother lost her job and I got kicked out of school,” he says, “because you’re traitors to the Motherland as soon as you apply to emigrate.”

On the way to Israel, Zhanna decided that, having already lost her husband, she didn’t want her son to join the army. When they tried to head for her sister in Canada instead, their aliyah sponsorship was withdrawn, and they made it only as far as Italy. A slum outside Rome became their home, and Perelman turned into a “street kid, working in gas stations, washing dishes, pulling all kinds of scams.”

Like Gilles and Farsi, Perelman didn’t know any Italian, and language, he says, is the “biggest barrier, the biggest difficulty, with immigration.” Also like Gilles, though, he is “pretty quick” in a corner, and learned about 40 words. He spoke them so “flawlessly”, he claims, that people thought he was Italian. “But I would say things very simplistically, kind of like in our movie.”

Eventually they moved to Edmonton, Canada, for a better life. But things turned sour when she remarried and he cut his ties with the family because of “difficulties” with his new stepfather.

Still only 17, he dropped out of high school and fell in with a gang of “hoodlums”. “We lived in a basement of one of the guys’ grandmother’s flats,” he said in 2003. “She collected welfare on all of us, and we just ran around and did stupid [often criminal] things. It was a rebellion for me, and a reaction. I wanted something in my life.” He also wanted to belong somewhere, a need which, I suggest, also takes Koch in Persian Lessons down a wrong path. “Exactly,” he says. “Although I’d never thought about it like that before.”

He turned his life around before it was too late. At university, he saw a documentary about how Norman Jewison battled his way through a ton of problems making Fiddler on the Roof, which inspired him. “I’m watching this man, and I’m watching him building this world, and I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Returning to how Gilles’s story changes in Persian Lessons, he says:

“I guess if I didn’t make the films, my life would have been for nothing. It would have been just surviving.”


Persian Lessons is on digital release January 22 and DVD February 8, and will be available from UK Jewish FIlm from February 1 

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