Saturday, April 5, 2014


After the attentuating, enervating and exhausting week, I was grateful to escape last night into rare and unusual cinema:  a showing of The Yellow Ticket (Der Gelbe Schein), the 1918 Pola Negri UFA feature which inaugurated the Kaori Kitao Endowment for Cinema History at Swarthmore College.  The picture, a full-length remake of Czarna Ksiazeczka, Alexander Hertz's 1915 Polish film (also starring Negri), was one of the films the Nazis tried to remove from circulation and physically destroy in the 1940s, and was recently restored to its integral form from incomplete versions by film historian Kevin Brownlow.  The Swarthmore showing featured live musical accompaniment by klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals (pictured above) and pianist Marilyn Lerner, performing Svigals' original score for the film.

The Yellow Ticket tells the story of a young Jewish woman in Warsaw, played by Negri, who wants to study medicine at university in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg, something forbidden to Jews at the time.  It's a stormy and somewhat confusing (on a number of levels) melodrama, made compelling by the contradictions the characters confront, the direct but evocative cinematography, but mainly by the strength of the actors' performances.  Professor Kitao, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emerita in Art History, described the film well and accurately in her remarks when she included the exhibition and preservation of "works of artistic merit" and "documents of historical interest" as chief among the endowment's goals.

It was a great evening reliving and reimagining life in early 20th century Warsaw and St. Petersburg (recreated by UFA using Warsaw exteriors and studio settings) and finally seeing a full-length Pola Negri performance.  Since childhood I've been aware of her hypnotic, exotic beauty; I didn't know what a magnetic, affecting actress she was. Reconnecting with Professor Kitao, who taught me so well in college and whose example propelled me to art history graduate school, was also wonderful and I was proud to introduce Jane to her.  The post-film discussion among the various resident historians and musicologists was a little oddball, but wide-ranging and mostly fascinating.  But viewing the exquisitely restored feature examining a young woman's tragic, but ultimately redeemed life, in glorious living silence intermittently punctuated (not interrupted) by powerful musical interludes, made life 100 years ago seem like yesterday or even tomorrow.  That is certainly the power and potential of artistic expression and it made me wish that everything that is currently occupying newspaper front pages and social media billboards would just take a hike.

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