The Yellow Ticket Film Synopsis
Lea, the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper and pawnbroker in a Polish shtetl, dreams of studying medicine in St. Petersburg in order to save her ailing father. Encouraged by her non-Jewish tutor Ossip, Lea pores over books to discover a remedy for his suffering. She is undeterred by the fact that Jewish women residing in St. Petersburg must possess the yellow identity papers issued to prostitutes and that Jews are prohibited from attending medical school. After arriving in the city, Lea has no alternative but to secure accommodations at a brothel where the proprietress expects her to attend some parties. She unpacks her belongings and discovers a book Ossip gave her containing his dead sister’s identity papers. Lea registers for medical school using this pseudonym. She meets a fellow student who falls in love with her, but is later angered to discover her working at the brothel. Meanwhile, Lea’s professor at medical school has honored her with a prestigious prize. Upon hearing this surprising announcement about his deceased sister, Ossip travels to St. Petersburg to investigate. In flashback, the film reveals secrets about Lea and her professor and climaxes with a heroic life-saving measure on the operating table.
Directed by Victor Janson and Eugen Illès, The Yellow Ticket (1918) was one of Pola Negri’s first films for German film studio UFA, which Paramount later released in the U.S. in 1922. Negri, born in Poland in 1897, was the first exotic European actress imported to Hollywood during the silent film era and its highest paid actor renowned for her flamboyant style and independent spirit. Although Negri is best known for her subsequent “vamp” and femme fatale roles both for German and American film, The Yellow Ticket offered an opportunity to play an atypical role as a sensitive, ambitious scholar.
The Yellow Ticket is set prior to the October Revolution when sex work was legal in Tsarist Russia. Despite the government’s liberal policies on prostitution, anti-Semitic laws required Jewish women from the Pale of Settlement to possess prostitution papers in order to reside in cities outside the Pale of Settlement. The film, which explores social issues such as human trafficking, ethnic and religious discrimination and poverty, is based on Abraham Schomer’s 1911 Yiddish melodrama Afn Yam un“Ellis Island” (At Sea and Ellis Island) which was subsequently produced on Broadway in 1914 in an un-authorized English-language version written by Michael Morton. Several cinematic adaptations of the story preceded and followed the UFA production. An additional literary source is Aleksandr Amfiteatrow’s 1908 novel The Yellow Pass.
Filmed partly on location in German-occupied Warsaw during the last year of World War I, the melodrama has several historical merits. Exteriors include rare documentary footage of Nalewki, Warsaw’s bustling Jewish district, before the neighborhood and the majority of its residents were destroyed by Nazi Germany. In addition, the film is a curious example of propaganda used to portray the Russian regime as inhumane and heartless.
In Memoirs of a Star (1970), Negri argues that The Yellow Ticket was remarkably progressive during a cinematic period of ethnic stereotyping: “Its sympathetic portrait of Jews might displease some of the population, but a vast majority would be very moved by it. It might even help to spread a little tolerance and understanding, and this would be no small accomplishment during those long enervating years of war.”
Program Officer for the Arts
Foundation for Jewish Culture
Thomas Elsaesser, ed. A Second Life: German Cinema’s First Decades (1996)
- Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds (2010)
Pola Negri, Memoirs of a Star (1970)
S.S. Prawer, Between Two Worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 (2007)