In the fraught world of the silent film The Yellow Ticket, the heroine confronts anti-Semitism and moral hypocrisy, fights for survival and nearly dies before discovering her true identity and finding acceptance and happiness.
The saga surrounding this rare 1918 movie, which stars Pola Negri in one of her first major roles, is almost as dramatic. Nazis destroyed all copies of The Yellow Ticket, which was made by a German company, because of its sympathetic portrayal of Jews. Decades later, it was painstakingly reconstructed from pieces of film found in Russia and Holland.
Now the Yellow Ticket comes to Miami in a version that offers new insights into this provocative and revealing portrait of another era, with a new musical score by a groundbreaking Jewish artist. Composer and violinist Alicia Svigals will perform her score at the film’s screening Sunday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, a presentation of the alternative Jewish cultural organization Next @19th with the cinema and the Miami International Film Festival.
Svigals, a founder of the Klezmatics, a primary mover in the revival of Jewish klezmer music, was fascinated by the glimpse The Yellow Ticket offered into Jewish history — and her own. The movie was shot in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and in Russia at the end of the revolution.
“It’s quite a magical film,” says Svigals, whose great-grandparents came to New York from the Russian Empire in 1905. “It’s like a window into a mythic past that most of us only know through old photos — my great- and great-great-grandparents’ world, living and breathing in black and white.”
The revival is a project of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture, which commissioned the score and sent the movie on tour to presenters in its New Jewish Culture Network in Vancouver and five American cities.
The movie’s young heroine, Lea, played by Negri, lives in a poor Polish neighborhood with her sick, elderly father. She wants to study medicine in St. Petersburg, but as a Jewish woman, the only way she can travel is with a “yellow ticket,” the same work and identity document issued to prostitutes.
Lea hides her identity to get into medical school, but her ruse and her ability to study are complicated when she is forced to live among prostitutes, who take her in but also try to exploit her. She struggles between humiliation and the need to survive, and is finally saved by a professor who must face a shameful secret of his own in order to help her.
Made by a leading German film company and a Jewish producer, T he Yellow Ticket was bold in confronting controversial issues.
“Its sympathetic portrait of Jews might displease some of the population, but a vast majority would be very moved by it,” Negri, who was a Gentile, wrote in her autobiography. “It might even help to spread a little tolerance and understanding, and this would be no small accomplishment.”
The film offers a fascinating look at the budding star, who had Jewish friends as a young girl in Poland and whose father was a radical political activist. She is glamorous and compelling, even in Lea’s baggy tunics.
While the overt anti-Semitism may seem anachronistic to contemporary audiences, other aspects of the world portrayed in the movie seem surprisingly modern. The medical school classes are filled with women, and prostitution is legal in Tsarist Russia.
The movie was released in the United States in 1922. Andy Ingall, who managed the New York Jewish Film Festival before heading the arts program at the Foundation for Jewish Culture, says its sympathy for Lea’s plight contrasted strongly with the portrayal of Jews as underhanded and greedy in U.S. films of that era.
“ The Yellow Ticket was remarkably progressive for a time known for ethnic stereotypes,” Ingall says.
Working with Marilyn Lerner, a jazz and new-music pianist, Svigals incorporated elements of klezmer, jazz and classical into her score. She tried to make the music illuminate the film for modern audiences.
“The filmmakers made all sorts of assumptions about a viewer who lived in a different context and time,” she says. “I wanted to help the viewer have the intended emotional experience through the music, so it would be a non-verbal guide to the movie. The biggest challenge was to find music that would evoke the feeling of shame, because a lot of the movie revolves around shame and humiliation.”
The project enthralled Svigals. “I watched it so many times and knew it so well, I could act along with the people, like with the Rocky Horror show,” she says. “I ended up scoring every gesture and wave of their hand.”
The challenges gave her new appreciation for her grandfather, a silent film pianist who met her grandmother in a theater on the Upper West Side near where Svigals lives.
“It’s definitely this multitasking vortex of attention,” she says. “We don’t know whether to look at the movie, the score, each other or our fingers.”
Svigals and Ingall went to extraordinary lengths in reconstructing the film. They translated the original 1918 intra-titles, which they got from a copy of a Nazi censor’s report justifying the movie’s destruction. Previous reconstructions used the intra-titles from the 1922 American release, which were altered to make the character played by Negri, by then a star in America, more acceptable.
Miami audiences will be the first to see a high-quality digitized version of the movie, which eliminates the herky-jerky quality of many silent film restorations.
“We wanted to be faithful to the original version, and for people to experience it as it was in the original time period,” Ingall says.