Nobody is saying The Yellow Ticket is a great piece of cinema, but its authenticity can be haunting.
"When I see the interiors of the film, I smell the apartment of my great-grandmother [who emigrated from Odessa]," says Svigals. "It's a magic, rare, strange, mysterious, fascinating little item. It's like photos of my great-grandparents come to life."
"It's a snapshot of what Jewish life was like before it was ultimately eliminated" in much of Europe in World War II, said Andrew Ingall, arts officer at the Foundation for Jewish Culture, partial funder of the project. "Everyday folks from this district in Warsaw were used as extras to populate some of the scenes."
The film stars Pola Negri, who went on to be Poland's sexiest contribution to Hollywood, an actress who was a major screen presence, who counted Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino among her lovers, and was considered a social progressive, as a non-Jew, for taking public stands against anti-Semitism.
Here, in her less-glamorous early career, Negri plays a young woman of Yentl-like ambitions who yearns to study medicine in St. Petersburg, but can only leave her home village by accepting a "yellow ticket," a passport of a sort that paradoxically allows her freedom to travel but marks her as professional prostitute, which was legal in Czarist Russia. In the film, Negri is roughly analogous to a lap dancer.
In real life, women did have other options, and the yellow ticket entailed losing plenty of other freedoms. But in the film, the tradeoff is, predictably, a huge source of shame - which is what makes the task of violinist Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner particularly interesting.
"It's easy to do happy and sad," says Svigals. "But shame? And this film is full of shame."
Another layer is propaganda. Originally shot in 1914 in Warsaw with Negri (a version now lost), The Yellow Ticket was remade in 1918, again in Warsaw - and with Negri - but by a German production company, just after World War I. "It was an effort to win over the Jews in the borderlands," says Svigals. "The message is, the Russians are terrible and we'll take care of you."
On-screen relationships are strangely ambiguous. Among secondary characters, who is Jewish - or not - isn't at all clear. How the film feels about the Jewish population is equally hazy. And the film itself was especially hard to read in the form in which Svigals originally found it.
The 1918 version existed in a handful of prints - one in the Netherlands, another in Germany - in various states of deterioration. Even the best print, first presented by Svigals at the 2012 Washington (D.C.) Jewish Film Festival, was screened with equipment that made it look speedy and cartoonish. Restored to its proper pace, the running time went from 47 to 62 minutes - with some discreet cuts to enhance what was then an early attempt at using flashback techniques.
Another discovery was a censor's report, found in a German film museum, that had all of the film's "intertitles" - a compass for ordering the scenes correctly. The titles were also re-translated to English to assure that the film was saying what it meant to say.
"The film is radically different thanks to Alicia's heroic efforts," says Ingall. "We learned from an expert on Weimar-era cinema that art direction was so detailed, and now, the viewer can pay close attention to that."
The story itself is still full of plot twists that strain credulity - or perhaps not. Svigals recalls, "A friend of mine at the Boston show said, 'If I had seen this when I was younger, I would've thought this is so melodramatic and so full of crazy coincidences. Now, I see this happens in real life all the time.'
"Once you've lived a bit more," says Svigals, who is 50, "you look at this and say, 'Yes!' "
The Yellow Ticket
8 p.m. Thursday at the Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St. Information: www.gershmany.org or 215-545-4400.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.