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Arts & Life

Films to watch at the Denver Jewish Film Festival

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Hype Film
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Lars Eidinger in Persian Lessons (2020).

The 26th annual Denver Jewish Film Festival opens on Feb. 14 and runs through Feb. 22. It takes place both in-person and online, with a schedule of 34 movies. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, three films are of special interest.

Persian Lessons is a surprise from a bunch of directions. Director Vadim Perelman is Ukrainian. A year ago, the film was submitted to the Oscars as coming from Belarus but was disqualified because too few people from Belarus actually worked on it. The movie mixes absurdities, improbabilities, some graphic Nazi brutality, unexpected moments of tenderness — which you don’t trust — and something like surrealism.

Gilles, played by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, an actor from Argentina, is a young Frenchman about to be shot by the Nazis when he proclaims that he’s Persian, not Jewish. It happens that a Nazi officer on the scene dreams of opening a restaurant in Tehran — and he wants Gilles to teach him to speak Persian, or Farsi. Gilles doesn’t know a word of Farsi, but he invents vocabulary for the Nazi to memorize.

Against a world of murders, beatings and starvation, the contrast between brutality and simple weirdness is hard to absorb. Among other odd elements, the words Gilles invents don’t sound a bit like any language known to human beings. But the Nazi just eats it up. Much of the film boggles the mind, and you wonder how Gilles manages to remember the nonsense words he creates. The Nazi asks the Persian words for restaurant, bread and spoon, and Gilles makes them up.

It’s a befuddling picture, and you can’t tell if Gilles is just desperate to survive or if he’s more thoughtful than we think. There are hints — when the Nazi sees a group of Jews being led to slaughter, he says they’re nameless. But Gilles responds that they’re nameless only because the Nazi doesn’t know their names.

But it all comes together at the end, in a scene I will not reveal. Persian Lessons hits you with a profound and clear sadness, and the understanding of how important it is to bear witness to evil.

German filmmaker Elena Horn’s movie The Lesson also sneaks up on viewers. It’s about the immense problem of how to teach about the Holocaust in Germany now, when there are few survivors to tell what happened, public memory has faded, and neo-Nazism is rearing its despicable head. Horn narrates the film, talking about the difficulties. Archival images show German schoolchildren in the 1930s as they raise their arms in the Hitler salute, and as malevolent teachers present a rabid version of genetics.

These pictures contrast with young German kids in a small rural town in the present. They’re children; their blank faces are flush with their youth; they haven’t the experience or even the vocabulary to comprehend what they’re being taught, or to articulate their own personal reactions to it. Some of them are confused because they’ve picked up the whispers about how none of it was true and Hitler wasn’t so bad as people say.

On a visit to a camp, one girl says it seems nice — and she’s not wrong. The buildings are clean now; the grass is green, and it’s hard for a 14-year-old to imagine that more than 70 years earlier, people were tortured, murdered, and incinerated in this place.

I knew a woman who’d been in the Hitler Youth. When she got just a little bit older, she was horrified, but as a 10-year-old, she loved it — the uniforms, the marching and singing.

What pulls The Lesson together is that the film is director Elena Horn’s confrontation with herself, and that cuts deep.

The Jewish experience in the world is not just about Nazi-sponsored genocide, and it’s not just about Jews. The film Neighbors takes place on the Syrian border with Turkey among Kurds who are despised in both countries. A Kurdish boy witnesses the persecutions, and in school hears the teacher refer to Syria’s president as “Fuhrer.”

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