Monday, September 1, 2014

The Yellow Ticket (1918)

Imagine being told you could not go to school because of your last name. Imagine, even, being barred entry into a city—unless you accepted a legal standing that made you part of a permanent subclass.

I’m not referring to current events, although I could be. That’s the thing about bigotry—it’s always a metaphor for, and a callback to, earlier bigotries. And so, while we turn on the news and see (or simply, live through) today’s hatreds, we can also turn to the past and see them manifested there. Even dramatized, as is in The Yellow Ticket.

The bigotry in The Yellow Ticket is anti-Semitism. It is a hardened, institutionalized racism that exists to maintain the social order with Jews at the bottom. While no one in the film protests this openly, the story’s message is unambiguous: a young and capable Polish Jew named Lea (Pola Negri) cannot achieve all of which she is capable, due to a system that unfairly holds her back.

Negri was already an emerging European star when she made The Yellow Ticket; within a few years she’d be a global one too, transfixing North Americans with her exotic and slightly offbeat screen presence. With her dark-circled eyes and heart-shaped face, made extra white against a frame of black hair, she was a Theda Bara with real Continental cred.

Negri plays a victim in The Yellow Ticket, requiring the audience to sympathize with her character more than applaud her proactive spirit. That doesn't mean Lea lacks drive. She chooses to move to St. Petersburg to attend school, even if it means accepting the degrading “yellow ticket” forced upon all Jewish women living there, which effectively brands her a prostitute. And after realizing she will be denied entry into university, she enrolls under an assumed name, and excels. Lea has guts, and she’s prepared to sacrifice a lot for what she wants. But it is still the shame of such laws, more than Lea’s strength in negotiating them, that occupies the centre of the film. Lea embodies a problem, and like any archetypal character, she can feel distant at times.

The film’s direction is workmanlike, though a few artful moments did stand out for me. I liked our first look at Lea: sitting in deep study in the family’s pawn shop, a picture frame hanging askew above her head. It resembled a guillotine blade. The shot is an efficient, elegant summation of both Lea’s commitment and her many heartbreaks to come.

Powerful, too, is a scene late in the film (where most of the good scenes are found) in which Lea, now honoured for her academic record, fears that her secret life is about to be exposed. Here Negri emotes before a mirror—an obvious symbol of her double life. But more interestingly, the woman we see in the glass seems older and wearier, in heavier shadow, than the one on our side. There’s no trick of makeup here. Perhaps it was the lighting. Whatever it was, it worked.

This scene, with its near-operatic tone of melancholy, represents The Yellow Ticket at its best. Negri had range and power, and here she floods the screen with energy enough to carry us away. Unfortunately, her cast mates are not her equals—especially Harry Liedtke, who plays Lea’s love interest, Dmitri. Liedtke delivers an unintentionally comic performance that unravels every scene he’s in.

Luckily, the second-most important role is played by another able performer. Adolf E. Licho is Professor Zukowski, a physician and lecturer in whose class Lea first distinguishes herself. Like Negri, Licho commands his scenes, closing the film with a tremendous performance in a scene that is preposterous on its face, but works, because the actor at the centre of it projects both gravity and passion in equivalent measure.

Silent films about race inevitably disappoint, never going as far down the righteous road as modern viewers would like. Too many of them reinforce racial boundaries even as they decry prejudice—the hero of the East being discovered (for example) to be the son of white parents, making him a suitable match for his white love interest.

The Yellow Ticket, though not the most tortured example of this I’ve seen, does fall into the same trap. This makes it a film of its time, but, as it also mutes the film’s power today, I think it’s fair to call that a flaw.

There are better silent films about prejudice than The Yellow Ticket: some better acted (The Goddess); some better directed (Sex in Chains); a few more intellectually honest (The Vanishing American). Negri would go on to do better work, herself. To recommend The Yellow Ticket today is to acknowledge that, while it is imperfect, there is still value in seeing how an earlier time grappled with, in hesitation, but with a real concern, the true meaning of justice.

Where to find The Yellow Ticket:The Yellow Ticket (Der Gelbe Shein) was screened this past August 31, 2014, in Toronto—part of the 2014 Ashkenaz Festival. The screening featured live accompaniment by klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, who composed a new score for the film in 2013. Svigals, who supplied occasional vocals as well, was joined by Jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner and clarinetist Laura DeLuca.

The Yellow Ticket is also part of the DVD set, Pola Negri: The Iconic Collection, packaged with other early Negri films, The Polish Dancer (1917), Eyes of Mummy Ma (1918), and Sappho (1921).

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