Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Written by Joseph Stein
Directed by Norman Jewison
By this time in his career, Norman Jewison had become dismayed over the political climate in the United States. It was clear that the government was meeting the multiple cultural uprisings and movements with hostility and brutality. He decided to move his family to England, which is where his subsequent few productions were based. Having gained considerable clout for his work on In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair, Jewison was offered to direct a film adaptation of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. The themes of Fiddler seem right in Jewison’s wheelhouse, but it was his first musical, so that aspect of the film remained to be seen until its release. The result is one of Jewison’s best pictures.
Tevye (Topol) is a Jewish milkman living in a Ukrainian village in the early 20th century. He lives in poverty with a nagging wife, Golde (Norma Crane) & five daughters. The film opens just as the eldest daughter Tzeitel is being prepared by the local matchmaker to be the bridge for Lazar Wolf, the local butcher. Tzeitel doesn’t want to marry that old man and instead has promised herself in secret to Motel, her childhood friend and the town’s tailor. This first union challenges the conventions of Tevye and his people, but he finds a way to reconcile it in his heart. That opens the door to a series of increasingly non-traditional marriages for his daughters, and with each one, Tevye is tested. Meanwhile, the Czar is sending out edicts pushing law enforcement to purge villages of their Jewish populations, and it becomes clear that Tevye’s town is next on the list.
From a structural viewpoint, Fiddler on the Roof is unremarkably simple. The story of Tevye’s daughters feels extremely telegraphed, and anyone with even a tiny amount of experience with narrative can see where it is going early on. Sadly, we don’t get much character development for these young women, with Tzeitel having the most time devoted to her story. After that, the film is forced to move along faster, so we just accept the other relationships as genuine without ever really seeing them happen. There’s also the threat looming over everybody’s heads by the edict that means a purge is coming one day. All of this ties together thematically, and it centers around Tevye’s character arc.
Tevye is introduced as a man barely making ends meet but still having a playful, silly personality. He laments about his status to God but in a casual conversational manner. I’m not a scholar on Judaism, but one thing I have noticed in more accurate representations of their spiritual life is that talking with God is part of the journey. Growing up in a Christian fundamentalist home, there’s this pallor of fear & subservience about God. I much prefer Judaism’s more organic approach where God is someone you can be happy to speak with one day and then wholly infuriated with the next. It distances the religion from being authoritarian, which is what American Christianity certainly has become.
The crux of the movie is summed up in Tevye’s monologue about the fiddler on the roof. He uses this as a metaphor to describe himself and his fellow villagers. They balance precariously between the needs of themselves & others and the cultural traditions that bind them together. This means that when the matchmaking process of marriage is challenged, Tevye has to go through some problematic thinking. While centered on a Jewish community, Fiddler’s story doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to Judaism. This is an experience that happens in all communities when the norms are challenged. In an updated version of this story, one of the daughters would come out as a bisexual or a lesbian, and it would have the same impact on people steeped in tradition. The story isn’t so cavalier as to say throw out all these traditions because it’s evident traditions have been an element that has bonded these people through centuries of persecution.
What Jewison adds to this mix is a joyous visual palette. The one thing I come away from when I watch this film is feeling very happy. He manages to not soften the blows of the injustice being visited on these people yet still show us how they find tiny sparks of hope as they trudge on into the unknown. It definitely left me curious about the original short stories by Sholem Aleichem that served as the basis for the musical. I’m sure there’s more character development and nuance in those. Fiddler also came at the end of Hollywood’s glory days of musicals. It was 1971, and the entire landscape of American film was changing, but Jewison did have another musical in store before he was done with the genre.