In pre-revolutionary Russia, a Jewish peasant contends with marrying off three of his daughters while growing anti-Semitic sentiment threatens his village.In pre-revolutionary Russia, a Jewish peasant contends with marrying off three of his daughters while growing anti-Semitic sentiment threatens his village.In pre-revolutionary Russia, a Jewish peasant contends with marrying off three of his daughters while growing anti-Semitic sentiment threatens his village.
The plot is based on short stories written around the turn of the 20th Century by Sholom Aleichem, who was often called the "Russian Mark Twain". Aleichem wrote a number of works based on his character Tevye the Milkman, who has seven daughters (in the film, this was pared down to five). They live in the fictional Jewish shtetl ("village", or "little town or city") of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia in the early 1900s. The stories are "slice of life" stuff. A lot of attention is paid to Tevye's daughters and their potential suitors. One of the prominent conflicts with tradition is a struggle with arranged marriages versus marriages for love, but of course, being set in pre-revolutionary Russia, there are also political changes brewing, some of which have a profound affect on Tevye's family and village.
Aleichem's Tevye stories were first turned into a Broadway musical, which began its initial run in 1964 with Zero Mostel as Tevye. Producer and director Norman Jewison, who had had success with films like In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and who was experienced as a producer and director for musical-oriented televisions shows, including "Your Hit Parade" (1950) and "The Judy Garland Show" (1960), was asked around early 1970 by United Artists to helm the Fiddler on the Roof film. To their surprise, Jewison wasn't Jewish. He got the gig anyway, and in August 1970, began an arduous shoot--much of it done in a small village in Yugoslavia that refused to cooperate when it came to weather (Jewison couldn't get the snow he wanted). He ended up getting a lot of pressure because the shoot went over time and over budget--this was one of the most expensive films of its time, which was an era of economic woes for Hollywood--but of course we know it paid off in the end.
Zero Mostel was out as Tevye, and Israeli actor Chaim Topol, or just "Topol", was in, based largely on Jewison seeing him in the role of Tevye in the London stage production of Fiddler. Jewison had said that he was shooting for more realism in the film, as opposed to what he saw as a kind of campy humor in the Broadway production.
In my eyes, Jewison ended up with a bit of both approaches in his finished film, but that's all for the better. Sequences like the opening "Tradition" montage are hilarious in their juxtaposition of a grand operatic attitude and the rhythmic coordination of cleaning fish, hanging slabs of meat, and so on. Yes, a lot of Fiddler is very realistic, but it's equally humorous and surrealistic most of the time.
The realism is largely thanks to the authentic settings, the fabulous production and costume design, and of course, the superb performances. The humor is a factor of the above with that Mark Twain-ish aspect of Aleichem's stories and the fine script by Joseph Stine.
The surrealism comes largely by way of the cinematography. Some of the visual sense is reminiscent of Marc Chagall's early work and his later, nostalgic depictions of his native Russia, and in fact, the image of the fiddler on the roof comes directly from a Chagall painting. Jewison saw the fiddler as a cross between a metaphor for the Jewish spirit (and this is explained in more detail via a few lines of dialogue in the film) and an actual physical manifestation of a spirit. However we interpret the fiddler, the shots of him and his presence in the film are certainly poetic. Jewison also gives us some fabulous, surreal, wide landscape shots, such as those of agricultural fields and the beautiful "wasteland" in which the train tracks are set. There are a few scenes set on the banks of a river, overlooked by a bridge, that are reminiscent of particular Van Gogh paintings. And as a more subtle bit of surrealism, Jewison had cinematographer Oswald Morris shoot much of the film though a woman's stocking--the mesh is very clearly visible in some exterior shots. Of course, there are also a couple more surrealistic touches in the plot, my favorite being the Tevye's Dream sequence, which features traditionalist Jewish zombies in an operatic attitude.
A musical couldn't be a 10 without great music, and Fiddler on the Roof has it. The songs are a marvelous melding of traditional Russian folk melodies, with appropriate twinges of Orientalism and the expected Broadway sound, but maybe leaning a bit closer to a modern opera. From that description, you might think that the music would be a mess, but all of the songs are inventive and catchy. They are seamlessly melded with the drama, furthering the narrative as they should. The choreography is excellent and it is well shot by Jewison. And Isaac Stern's violin solos are outstanding, of course.
Fiddler on the Roof takes an investment of time--it's three hours long, but it's well worth it. It offers great drama, great music, great humor and great tragedy in a beautiful package--you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll sing, and you just might break a leg trying to dance.
- Jun 5, 2005