Fiddler on the Roof and the Movie Behind the Myth


I’ve written about The Citizen Kane Effect — the idea that sometimes a work hailed as a classic can do something so innovative and so essential within the medium, that its techniques become woven into the fabric of how later works present themselves. As a result, modern audiences may consume the original work and walk away unimpressed because the great strides of the past have become commonplace in the present day.

But there’s another, similar phenomenon that can prove challenging to the appreciation of great art. Works within any medium or genre can become such classics that they ascend almost into myth, becoming iconic to the point that even critics and devoted fans forget about the real, warts-and-all work that once earned the lavish praise and became the fodder for that myth-making.

Fiddler on the Roof is just that kind of film for any child who grew up in a Jewish home. The entire production has become such a venerated piece in a long line of works depicting the Jewish experience on film,1 that in some ways it ceased to be a movie or a play, but rather became something closer to lore, a quintessential collection of quotes and melodies and settings simply floating around in the ether. With that kind of veneration, it’s easy to forget that Fiddler on the Roof is an actual story, a presentation, not just a cultural touchstone deposited a priori into young Jewish minds.

But one way to break this mode of thinking is to enjoy the work with someone uninitiated. My wife did not grow up in a Jewish home, and she loves the film for all the reasons that it became such a notable entry in the pantheon of Jewish storytelling. It’s a stunning encapsulation of both a particular strain of long-standing Jewish culture, and also of the changes and challenges that forced that culture to evolve and adapt.

Fiddler on the Roof is certainly a Jewish story, but it’s a universal one as well. It engages with the same themes that shows like Mad Men do today. Both stories depict a man who feels like he understands and, to a certain extent, is in control of his world, while it stands at the precipice of tumult, but who slowly but surely feels the earth shift beneath his feet.

 

Everybody loves Tevye, but when I dance in the middle of the street I'm "disrupting traffic."

 

And like Mad Men, Fiddler on the Roof would not work without the steadfast and compelling performance of its lead. While Chaim Topol’s casting in the 1971 film adaptation was controversial at the time2, he brings a melancholy gregariousness to his Tevye that adds such depth to the character every time he’s on screen. Topol gives a boisterous yet nuanced and multifaceted performance of a complex man in difficult, changing times. He yells, but he loves. He chastises, but he cares. He proclaims devotion, and lives it, but is constantly talking back.

But what makes the film’s protagonist particularly interesting is that Tevye is a man who is progressive despite himself. He repeatedly pontificates about tradition and its importance, but he also yields, often surprisingly quickly, when presented with the facts of his family’s happiness and “the new world.” He was raised firmly clutched in the warm embrace of the traditions he so cherishes, but was also taught, or at least learned, to think for himself. And that ever-jostling thought process, represented in his now famous “on the other hand” spiel, often leads him to positions that seems antithetical to his upbringing.

One of the most interesting, repeated juxtapositions in the film is Tevye vigorously arguing against something with his daughters, begrudgingly relenting to their point of view, and then attempting to sell the idea to his wife. At that point, he puts his own spin on the thought, embellishing and even parroting the arguments he was disputing moments earlier.

These shifts in belief have meaning, because Fiddler on the Roof is a film that’s allowed to develop slowly. It rarely reaches a boil, but rather keeps a constant simmer. To that end, most of the first half of the film is spent establishing the town of Anatevka and its residents. The audience is permitted to spend time with the community and comes to know it and appreciate it. There is a particular warmth to the wedding scene in the film, where the entire town gathers to honor one poor couple, descends into squabbles, and then rights the ship in joyful dance just before a small-scale pogrom by the community’s Russian cohabitants punctuates the first half of the film.

 

This is what it would look like if Lisa and Milhouse ever got married.

 

Then, the second half of the film is spent tearing down everything the first half established. From Tevye’s daughter Hodel leaving to join her husband Perchik in Siberia, to Tevye breaking ties with his daughter Chava for wanting to marry outside the religion, to the entire town being expelled from their homes, effectively dividing and ending the community. Fiddler on the Roof firmly cements Anatevka as a place of life, of home, of “heartland” in the original sense of the term, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when it’s all torn asunder.

Part of what makes that ending so sad is how well the world of the film is established. Each of Tevye’s daughters and their beaus have distinct personalities, goals, and wants, without feeling like mere archetypes. Golde is a force to be reckoned with, who proves a match for her husband’s uneven temper and changing intellectual gait. The various townspeople each have small quirks that make them more than mere faces in the crowd.

 

A scene from Fiddler on the Roof, or a scene from an allergy pill commercial? You be the judge.

 

The development of the reluctant Russian constable, who is softened somewhat from his portrayal in the stage play, is especially commendable. While it would be easy to paint “the other” as simply a one dimensional enemy in a film like this, the movie avoids the temptation and portrays the constable as a complicated character caught between sympathy and duty. This point is also underscored with Chava’s romance with Fyedka, the Russian peasant, and reinforces the idea that the people who threaten the way of life that Tevye holds so dear are human beings as well, not just some monolithic force for ill.

That said, it’s easy to forget that even amidst the serious issues tackled in depicting these earth-shattering challenges and changes within the Jewish community, and despite the sadness of seeing another group of wandering Jews sent to further disperse the diaspora, just how damn funny Fiddler on the Roof still manages to be. The lines given to Tevye crackle and pop with wry humor. “If money is a curse, let me be stricken and never recover.” “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.” Even Tevye’s two-second viewing of Mottel’s sewing machine has a certain vaudevillian comedic flair to it. There are so many clever lines with that sardonic sense of humor that feels so true to, and so prevalent in, the Jewish community.

It’s also a beautifully shot film. The scene where Tevye delivers a monologue about Hodel marrying Perchik could almost be a painting. And the stunning cinematography would not have worked without a correspondingly perfect set design. Anatevka has a lived-in feel. It’s desolate, but also a place where people have scratched out a home. It feels very genuine in that regard, and allows the camera work to flourish.

 

That gate started out as a white picket fence.

 

And it does. The camera sweeps from the quiet of a domestic scene to a wider shot of the countryside, denoting the small position of this family in the wider world. Tevye himself is often shot from above, emphasizing his connection to and conversations with God. The director and cinematographer show a willingness to let shots breathe, without the frenetic pacing that’s so common today. The dance scenes are particularly well done in this regard, allowing the viewer to see the full range and development of the performers’ movements and truly appreciate their complicated routines.3

Despite this fact, the film is not immune from certain artifacts of the seventies. The freeze frame on Tevye after “To Life” has a certain cheesy “I’m gonna make it after all” quality to it. The way one image fades into another during certain scenes vacillates between being striking and being too hokey to be effective. The semi-transparent close-ups of Tevye’s face during his “on the other hand” routine feel like the kind of throwback cinematography that exudes artifice.4

But those nitpicks aside, Fiddler on the Roof is more than a celebrated piece of Jewish lore or an icon of the Jewish cultural experience. It is a complete film with moving performances, elegant filmmaking, poignant storytelling, wonderful music, and beautiful scenes. With the ghosts of those melodies and stories still lurking in the corners of my mind, it’s nice to become reacquainted with the film as a living, breathing work, that truly earned its place as one for the ages.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Alongside other classics like Schindler’s List, Yentl, Munich, and, of course, Fievel: An American Tail.
  2. Zero Mostel, who originated the role on Broadway was reportedly quite upset at being passed over for the role, as were many fans of the original production. The film’s director, Norman Jewison, felt that Mostel’s larger than life personality would not permit him to disappear into the character of Tevye on film in the same way that Topol could.
  3. It’s hard not to imagine a modern version of this film changing shots every half second to emphasize the freneticness of the scene instead of letting the performance stand on its own.
  4. My mental landmark for that type of direction is the famed ”siren shot” from Kill Bill.

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