The Arty Semite

Setting 'Yellow Ticket' to Music

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek

Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals has experience scoring documentary and feature films. But earlier this year she faced an unusual challenge when she was approached by the Washington Jewish Music Festival to score a 1918 feature-length silent film called “The Yellow Ticket.”

Unlike other scoring jobs, where her focus was mainly on heightening viewers’ experience of onscreen action, this commission would also involve “creating a bridge to another time,” as she put it. Thanks to a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network, audiences at the New York Jewish Film Festival will have a chance to cross that bridge when Svigals and Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner perform the score live at a screening of “The Yellow Ticket” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on January 10. A subsequent tour will travel to Vancouver, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia and Houston.

“The Yellow Ticket,” set in Poland and Czarist Russia, portrays a young Jewish woman named Lea (played by Polish actress Pola Negri, Hollywood’s first European silent film star) as she overcomes adversity to succeed at the university in Saint Petersburg. It is a story of secret identities and the redeeming power of love. For 1918 audiences, the meaning and implications of possessing a “yellow ticket” — a permit held by undesirables like prostitutes and Jews, allowing them to reside in St. Petersburg — would be clear. Now, it is Svigals’ remit to convey through her music the shame and hardship associated with such a document, as well as the risks Lea takes in assuming a false identity in order to pursue her studies.

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'Starriest' of Silent Film Stars Back on Screen

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Wikimedia Commons

When you combine the sizzling artistry of violinist Alicia Svigals with the smoldering film presence of Pola Negri, the silent film star and Hollywood darling of the interwar years, sparks are sure to fly.

Building on the current fascination with the world of silent films, which “The Artist” and “Hugo” set in motion, the Washington Jewish Music Festival will screen The Yellow Ticket, a 1918 film, on May 21. Less than an hour in length, this full throttled melodrama explores the triangulated relationship of Jewish identity, prostitution and modernity through its focus on a Jewish woman’s unhappy experiences in St. Petersburg.

The Polish actress whose long red lacquered nails and off-screen romances with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino prompted The New York Times to dub her the “queen of screen vamps,” the “starriest of stars,” played a Jewish heroine so convincingly that Hitler and Goebbels forbade the showing of her films in Germany because they believed she was Jewish.

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