DVD Picks & Passes

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) -Pick

L’Chaim! Life itself, joyous and tragic, is the subject of the boisterous, comic, heartbreaking vision of Fiddler on the Roof, available this week in a new 2-disc collector’s edition.

In this tale of rural life in a Ukrainian village on the eve of the Russian Revolution are faith and struggle, happiness and suffering, passionate youth and tired old age, idealism and practicality, money and poverty, compromise and conviction and, above all, constancy and change.

The themes are universal, but the sensibility is distinctively Jewish. The story of Tevye the milkman of Anatevka and of his daughters began as a series of short stories by Ukranian writer Sholom Aleichem before becoming a stage musical in the 1960s, and from the joyous opening celebration of “Tradition” to the terrible specter of exile and diaspora in the finale, the production rings with Old Testament feeling.

There are echoes of the questioning of Job in Tevye’s tart, one-way dialogues with God (including the raucous “If I Were a Rich Man”), but also traditional piety in “Sabbath Prayer,” the joyful psalm-like recounting of God’s saving acts in “Miracle of Miracles,” and the eternal verities of Ecclesiastes in the haunting chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Norman Jewison’s direction displays flashes of brilliance. At one point, during “If I Were a Rich Man,” as Tevye fantasizes about enjoying untold blessings from heaven, the camera looks up at him standing in the barn loft above all the animals, in the place of God, as it were. He’s pouring out his gifts to those below. But, in the end, as he sings the trenchant last lines, it’s the camera that looks down from on high while Tevye is firmly back on earth.

At the heart of Fiddler is, of course, tradition. The title itself refers to the precariousness of life against which tradition is a buffer and support.

But the story is also about the erosion and transformation of tradition, and its attitude toward this process is deceptively tricky to pin down. Over the course of the story, Tevye’s daughters make increasingly unconventional choices that reflect a departure from tradition. In general, the viewer is expected to sympathize with them.

On the other hand — in Tevye’s characteristic phrase — each nontraditional choice is followed by increasingly grave misfortune. And, while only one of these misfortunes is really directly connected to the break from tradition, these woes suggest on a poetic level that abandoning tradition is no light matter.

Fiddler is almost unique in daring to combine humor and buffoonery with genuine moral outrage at the tragedy and horror of anti-Semitic persecution. It’s a risky strategy, but in Fiddler laughter and romance help reach past the defenses we often bring to a serious “message” film, and enable us to see Tevye and his family and neighbors not as characters in a tragedy but as ordinary people like ourselves.

Content advisory: Comic drunkenness; a scene involving macabre nightmare imagery that may frighten children. Teens and up.