As the war in Ukraine makes front page news, a new documentary and film festival are shining a spotlight on this Eastern European nation that has been the setting for three of the greatest productions of all time. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin, about the mutiny aboard one of the warships in the czar’s Black Sea fleet and the mass strike in the port city of Odessa during the 1905 Revolution was shot and set in Ukraine. The famed “Odessa Steps sequence”, which still jolts the senses, with the senseless barbaric cruelty of the czarist troops and Cossacks massacring frenzied, fleeing, unarmed civilians – baby carriages, amputees, stone lions and all.
The Odessa Opera House – which one can glimpse in contemporary news reports – plays an important role in this immortal montage every film student studies. Eisenstein’s masterpiece arguably did more to spread the Russian Revolution’s message than the collected writings of Lenin and Trotsky. Although less remembered, another Soviet classic set and shot in the Ukrainian countryside (with unforgettable sunflowers!) is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930 Earth, about the collectivization program.
On the other hand, Fiddler on the Roof remains prominent as it’s arguably one of the 10 greatest musicals of all time, with popular songs such as “Tradition”, “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man.” With music composed by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein (based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories), Fiddler opened on Broadway in 1964, won nine Tony Awards and was the first stage musical to exceed 3,000 performances (with countless revivals since). Now Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen tells the tale of the beloved play’s translation from one medium to another.
This delightful 88-minute documentary is a highly satisfying, extremely enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at director Norman Jewison’s transition of Fiddler from the stage to the silver screen. In addition to many clips from the 1971 movie version of the musical, there are extensive interviews with the talents who made that transition, including Jewison (who reveals he’s actually a “goy” – although he wished he had been born a Jew!), conductor/arranger John Williams (who later composed music for Star Wars), Topol (who played the lead character, Tevye the dairyman, who wished he was “born a wealthy man”), and director of photography Oswald Morris.
One of Britain’s great DPs, Morris lensed musicals, including 1968’s Oliver! plus dramas such as John Huston’s superb 1975 The Man Who Would Be King. Morris scored a Best Cinematography Oscar for Fiddler and reveals in Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen that he shot with a silk stocking over his camera lens to bestow an earthy ambiance on the Anatevka set. Although Anatevka is likely set in Ukraine and modeled after a village near where Aleichem was born in Central Ukraine, the film was actually shot on location in former Yugoslavia and at Pinewood Studios in the UK. (Onscreen Fiddler’s locale is identified as Imperial or Czarist Russia, which circa 1905 encompassed Ukraine.)
Also interviewed in Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen are the young (now senior citizens!) actresses who portrayed Tevye’s daughters onscreen, including Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), Neva Small (Chava) and Michele Marsh (Hodel). In Fiddler the latter becomes romantically involved with Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), who becomes a revolutionary and is shown in one rally scene with a waving red flag.
The documentary also has rare filmed vignettes from earlier stage iterations of Fiddler starring Zero Mostel, who originated the role of Tevye on Broadway. A funny thing happened on the way to the Fiddler movie version: Jewison decided not to cast the renowned Zero because he was too comic and larger than life, an Americanized version of Aleichem’s Ukrainian dairyman. Some concern was also expressed that Topol was too Israeli (that is, assertive and bold) for the part, but he was cast anyway. (I had the pleasure of watching him perform at the Pantages Theater in his farewell tour of Fiddler – as a child, I enjoyed Herschel Bernardi’s iteration on the Great White Way.)
Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is helmed by Oscar-nommed director, Daniel Raim, who specializes in making documentaries about artists such as Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock and the 2015 nonfiction film Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, co-starring Mel Brooks. Raim’s next doc is about Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. One of L.A.’s top film publicists, Sasha Berman, has a credit as the doc’s producer and the nonfiction film’s narrator is Jeff Goldblum.
Of course, Fiddler on the Roof ends with the expulsion of the Jews from Anatevka. The Czarist pigs give them only three days to sell all of their worldly possessions and then hit the road, Jews! OMG! Tevye pulls a wagon with what’s left of their belongings and his family as they walk on the road, refugees fleeing to save their lives from a pogrom. It seems like a tragic denouement, but considering that these wandering Jews ended up in America, maybe it’s not as sad as it looks.
Like my own ancestors, they missed three revolutions (although I probably would have relished that), the Civil War, Nestor Makhno, famine, Stalinism, the Nazi invasion, Babi Yar, the tumultuous breakup of the USSR, and since 2014 and especially now, the vicious, cruel war with that Donbas dumbass, Putin. So, although America was no bowl of cherries for immigrant Jews, by emigrating Tevye and countless other Ukrainians were spared some of the worst miseries of the 20th and 21st century, and thanks to their forced exile and exodus, were really the lucky ones after all…
The rich screen tradition begun by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925 continues also continues as Ukraine is being represented onscreen at SEEfest, the 17th annual South East European Film Festival, taking place in L.A. from April 27-May 4, with the inclusion of two Ukrainian movies in the program. They are the 2022 Sundance directing award winner Klondike by Maryna Er Gorbach and the US premiere of Blindfold by Taras Dron. According to a press release, “Both films focus on ordinary people trying to live their lives under the constant threat of new conflict and war traumas that just won’t go away.” For more information: https://seefilmla.org/.
Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is being theatrically released nationwide, including at Angelika Film Center in NYC on April 29 and at Laemmle Royal and Town Center in L.A. on May 6. L’chaim!