Silent film preserves Jewish anthropology

The 1918 German silent film “The Yellow Ticket,” released in the U.S. as “The Devil’s Pawn,” was shown in the Villard Room on Sept. 10 with a live score. / Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

With the flicker of a film and the strike of a piano key, the audience became engrossed in the celluloid imprint of actors many years passed. No words came out of the characters’ mouths, and yet the audience was able to empathize with the hopes and dreams, the love and loss translated through the music that filled the room.

Last Sunday night, the Villard Room travelled to 1910s Warsaw in a film screening of the 1918 silent film “The Yellow Ticket.” Presented by the Jewish Studies Program, the film was accompanied by a live score performed by Alicia Svigals on violin and vocals and Marilyn Lerner on piano. “The Yellow Ticket” is especially notable for being filmed in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, Poland,, remaining one of the few cinematic documentations of pre-World War II Jewish ghettos.

“The Yellow Ticket” follows Lea, a young Jewish woman who lives in the Warsaw Ghetto. Hoping to study medicine at a university in St. Petersburg, Lea is forced to register as a sex worker, receiving a “yellow ticket” as proof of her status as a prostitute, or else she will go to prison for being Jewish. Posing as the deceased Christian sister of her former tutor, Lea reluctantly lives these dual lives until a classmate discovers her at the brothel and she tries to commit suicide.

Associate Professor of English and previous Director of Jewish Studies Peter Anteyles discussed the discourse created from this screening of a film with Jewish characters featuring a score inspired by traditional Jewish music: “It allows us to talk about Jewish film but also Jewish music, and also finally to expand our understanding of conditions Jews lived in and the diversity of positions they held. There’s not a lot talked about, for instance, that there was a Jewish brothel in the U.S. during this period in downtown New York, that Jews were in every profession. And this is a way we can expand what we look at and what we think about as Jewish culture.”

The screening featured an introduction by Director of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion Marc Michael Epstein along with Antelyes, plus a Q&A with Svigals and Lerner.

When Svigals reached out to Vassar’s Jewish Studies Program about potentially hosting a screening, Antelyes saw a wonderful opportunity. “We in Jewish Studies were really excited about it and contacted her. I had known about her because she was one of the co-founding members of a group called The Klezmatics, which is a really important klezmer group. So I was a real fan of hers, so it was a pleasure to hear that she was doing this traveling event. Also, I wanted to bring her myself because I teach a course in Jewish-American literature, which I’m doing this semester, and one of the texts we do is Sholem Asch’s play ‘God of Vengeance’ … I thought it would be a perfect complement to the play.”

“The Yellow Ticket,” originally titled “Der Gelbe Schein,” was originally released in 1918 by German production company UFA-Pagu, which also produced Fritz Lang’s magnum opus “Metropolis.” Released at a peculiar time between World War I and the Russian Revolution, “The Yellow Ticket” stars Pola Negri in one of her earliest roles. Negri traveled shortly after to Hollywood, where she became known as one of the first actresses to popularize the femme fatale role. Due to her success in America, Paramount released “Der Gelbe Schein” in wide release as “The Devil’s Pawn.”

Svigal’s score was commisioned by the New Jewish Culture Network of the Foundation for Jewish Culture from a restored print by the distinguished silent film historian Kevin Brownlow.

Audience member Jacob Liss ’20 was very captivated by the rare experience to see a silent film with live music. “I feel it helped to magnify the emotional and comedic scenes of the film, as well as give the film a more realistic and grounded quality, at least to me,” Liss explained. “I also enjoyed how much of the music was based in following specific dramatic themes of the movie, à la having a musical motif for shame, sadness and happiness instead of just being simple underscoring, and that felt very effective to me.”

Alicia Svigals on violin and vocals and Mariyln Lerner on piano performed Svigals’s klezmerinspired
score to the 1918 German silent film ‘The Yellow Ticket’ in the Villard Room on Sept. 10. / Courtesy of Tina Chaden via

Behind this project and in front of the screen were Alicia Svigals and Marilyn Lerner. Svigals, who composed the original score for “The Yellow Ticket,” was a founding member of The Klezmatics, a Grammy award-winning musical group of international renown. Using traditional Yiddish music with a post-modern contemporary influence, The Klezmatics have contributed to the revived interest in klezmer music. Lerner, a prominent jazz pianist who received the Montreal International Jazz Festival award for best composition, has also composed a Yiddish song cycle based on the poetry of Anna Margolin.

Since the premiere of the restored version of “The Yellow Ticket” in 2012, Svigals has been traveling around the world performing with Lerner, including to Warsaw, the original filming location.

Liss described what he found to be the most memorable moments of the evening: “I personally really enjoyed the film. Of course, a lot of the physical and facial acting is overdone, but that’s just part of the silent film charm in my opinion. I also really enjoyed this film’s use of the flashback, and I think I remember hearing in the Q&A that it was actually one of the first films to do so.”

On Oct. 18, the Jewish Studies Program will be hosting a reading by Irena Klepfisz, a well-respected poet writing bilingually in Yiddish and English. In November, Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley and Jewish historian Eddy Portnoy will be having a moderated conversation, drawing on their backgrounds.

Epstein explained the mission that the Jewish Studies Program has adopted and how it aims to be untraditional while enriching through its courses’ explorations of Jewish traditions.

“Jewish Studies at Vassar is a multi- and inter-disciplinary program, where students can engage in lively encounter with everything from classical texts, traditions and contexts to their postmodern reforms, revisions, reimaginings and even rejections,” he noted. “It’s an antidote to [the] presentism and identism so rampant among some of us nowadays—many of us tend to be interested in what is happening to US, NOW, not to some other people at some other time: Jewish Studies teaches that Jewish identity is multiplex, its manifestations span all historical periods.”

Besides these events, the Jewish Studies Program has many courses designed to fit their modernized mission. Their newest course, JudaismS, is being taught by Ágnes Vetö with a syllabus designed around new, deeply nuanced and informed conversations. The course incorporates traditional Jewish sources with contemporary Jewish perspective.

Epstein did not ignore the anthropological ties ‘The Yellow Ticket” revealed about Jewish history: “I’m sure for nearly all of the members of the audience, the fact that Jews were restricted from living outside of the Pale of Settlement—that they could not reside in cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg unless they received the ‘yellow ticket’ to be prostitutes—was new information and profoundly shocking. Issues like the ones raised in the film—and in the performance, which was full of different musical modalities and tropes—are the very issues we discuss in Jewish Studies classes.”

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