Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by the same name. It is based on the story “Tevye the Milkman” by Sholom Aleichem, the most prolific Yiddish writer of his time. The story is set in Anatevka, a shtetl [village] in the Pale of Settlement of pre-revolutionary Russia, about 1910, with WWI on the horizon, although there are also details that seem to point to a time about 1883. Topol stars as Tevye, the milkman who faces the problems of shtetl life: finding husbands for his daughters, food for his family, and survival in the face of the crushing regime of the Czar. One casting item of note: the matchmaker is played by Molly Picon, one of the great actors of American Yiddish stage and cinema.
The film won three Oscars (Cinematography, Music, and Sound) out of eight nominations.
Fiddler offers a somewhat fantasized version of the brutal life of the shtetl. It is a touchstone for the American Jewish psyche and a prime example of laughing through tears, the hallmark of much Jewish humor. It is also the most easily accessible introduction to the Yiddish world of Sholom Aleichem.
Most importantly, Tevye is a Jewish Everyman: he suffers, but he endures. His world is crumbling: even in the muddy shtetls of the Ukraine, modernity is changing things, changing attitudes, making history. The old traditions are under pressure; the young people have new ideas. Tevye is devoted to tradition, but he recognizes that some forces cannot be resisted. In every age, the conflict between tradition and change has challenged Jews: “what now? How shall we maintain our traditions in this new place?” has been the cry in every age, beginning perhaps on the banks of the Nile, in Egypt.
Not to be missed!
There is another big American movie musical about the same period, Yentl. It tells a story set in Eastern European shtetl and town life from a woman’s point of view. If you choose to watch both, it’s fun to compare them.