Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Director: Norman Jewison
Screenwriters: Joseph Stein
Adapted from: Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock
Cast: Topol, Norma Crane, Rosalind Harris, Leonard Frey, Michele Marsh, Paul Michael Glaser, Neva Small, Louis Zorich
Nominations: Picture, Director – Norman Jewison, Actor – Topol, Supporting Actor – Leonard Frey, Cinematography, Art Direction, Score (adaptation/song score), Sound
Wins: Cinematography, Score (adaptation/song score), Sound

Tradition plays a large role in most aspects of life, whether we’re aware of it or not—and oftentimes even when we don’t understand the reason of the tradition.  I’m reminded of the story of a woman who would cut a roast in half and cook it in two pans in the oven; when asked, she said she does it because that’s how her mother did it.  Her mother said she did it because that’s how her mother did it.  And why did the grandma cut her roast in half and cook it in two pans?  Because her oven wasn’t large enough to hold the roast in a single pan.  Much of Fiddler on the Roof  focuses on Tevye straddling the line between what is done because that’s the way it’s done and doing something different because why does everything have to be done the way it’s been done?

The metaphor of tradition being a “fiddler on the roof” drives much of the plot of the film.  Tradition is only as sturdy as we allow it to be; however, by establishing new traditions, it’s possible to provide firmer footing for the old ways as well as the new.  A few shots indicate how Tevye comes to terms with coalescing the old.  When Tzeitel and Hodol tell their father their intent to marry each scene includes a shot of the couple (Tzeitel and Motel, and Hodol and Perchik) in the far distance and Tevye looking back to them as he reasons the couple’s request to buck tradition. 

The shots convey the importance of tradition to Tevye and his representation of tradition and his daughters’ representation as changes in tradition.  Tevye occupies the foreground, filling half the frame; he is large, intimidating even, dwarfing the respective couples who are slightly out of focus in the deep background.  He soliloquizes about what each couple is asking/telling him, and the setting emphasizing the severity of those requests regarding tradition: Tzeitel and Motel ask for Tevye’s permission in a field on his land and Hodol and Perchik tell Tevye they are marrying on a public bridge.

Tzeitel and Motel are still basing their marriage on traditional foundations.  They ask for Tevye’s permissions, on his land, showing that even though they want to disregard the matchmaker’s suggestion they still understand the importance of courting and engagement customs.  Hodol and Perchik tell Tevye of their decision, with the bridge in the shot symbolizing a greater divide from expectations than Tzeitel and Motel’s request.  This change is more difficult for Tevye to accept, but he also respects Perchik and considers him to be a good man.  If change is to come, it is best to come from someone he can trust.

Moving to Chava’s discussing marriage with Tevye, the first thing to notice is that she is not given a distant shot.  Tevye does not need and refuses to step back and look at her situation from a more objective position.  Her desire to marry outside the faith is too much of a deviation from tradition that Tevye unequivocally rejects her proposal.  Compared to the shots with Tzeitel and Hodol—in which they are on the left side of the frame, indicating that even though their decisions are “radical,” they are still based in past traditions—Chava is on the right of the frame with Tevye looking aghast from the left side: this is a future/change he cannot tolerate—so much so that he disowns his daughter when she marries a Christian man.

Eventually, Tevye recognizes Chava, albeit quietly, while he, his family, and the entire village suffers through another long-held tradition of Jews: a mass exodus from their homes.  Some practices, of course, aren’t always for the best, especially when those practices involve the oppression of others for what boils down to arbitrary reasons.  Because of this volatility towards Jews, it seems it would be easier to abandon those traditions that lead to them being ostracized.  But as Tevye invites the fiddler to join the displaced residents of the village shows us, the rituals and customs and rites and routines we follow in life are what help define who we are as peoples and communities.  Without tradition, we have little, if any, guidance; with tradition, we can find solidarity with others.  However, it’s also just as important to keep an open mind to the potentials and possibilities of adapting those traditions to changing times.  Our ability to exist depends upon our ability to adapt; but our ability to live depends upon our ability to find others we can share life with.