There is a scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living in Tsarist Russia, contemplates the devastation wreaked on his village by the latest pogrom, looks up to the heavens and declares: ‘Lord, I know we are your chosen people, but just for once couldn’t you choose someone else?’
There’s something about oppression that brings out the best in black humour. We see it in the resigned but subtly subversive humour of the peoples who lived under Soviet repression in Eastern Europe. The Jews of that part of the world had already developed a similar tradition under their predecessors, the Tsars. It was epitomised in the tales of Sholom Aleichem, who wrote about life in the Jewish shtetls – villages – of Tsarist Russia. Fiddler on the Roof was based on those stories.
The Jews of Eastern Europe fled to America in their thousands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bringing their cultural traditions including their folksy, fatalistic sense of humour. They are often credited with founding the American showbiz industry. They certainly enriched it. I’ve always thought the best American comedy is Jewish comedy.
An American Pickle harks back to those traditions. The story starts in the village of Schlupska, which could have been the Anatevka of Fiddler on the Roof. In place of Tevye and his wife Golde we have Herschel Greenbaum, a poor labourer, and his wife Sarah, (played by Aussie actress Sarah Snook). In common with Fiddler on the Roof, it has Cossacks invading a wedding and smashing everything up. Things get so bad for Herschel and Sarah that like Tevye and his family they emigrate to America.
In New York Herschel gets a job in a pickle factory. Not the coveted work of putting cucumbers into vats of brine, but starting at the bottom chasing rats away. One day the rats get so big and nasty that they corner him, causing him to topple over into a vat of brine just at the moment the overseer announces the factory has to shut down for health violations and everybody leaves.
A century later, two kids chase a ball into the abandoned industrial ruin and lift the lid on Herschel’s vat. He surges to the surface. Pickled and preserved for a hundred years, he emerges from the vat just as he was when he went in. There is a brief media sensation but in true New York fashion it’s soon forgotten. All this is handled with a light touch, the logical and scientific improbabilities brushed away with sly jokes about the ephemerality of celebrity and the brevity of the journalistic attention span.
Sarah had been pregnant at the time of Herschel’s pickling, and he soon discovers that he had a son, who had a son, who had a son called Ben. Ben is an app developer and typical millennial. He welcomes his great-grandfather into his apartment, where Herschel is astonished to see that his descendant has a fridge full of seltzer-water – a mark of abundance and luxury which had previously represented to him the epitome of luxurious living. Ben must be rich and successful!
But he’s not really, not by modern standards. In fact he’s desperately trying to achieve wealth and success by selling his new app, and isn’t much interested in those things which Herschel considers give life meaning: family and Jewish identity.
Seth Rogen plays both Herschel and his grandson Ben, and he does such a good job I didn’t twig until halfway through.
When conflict arises between the two the story loses some of its urban fairytale quality and becomes more of a conventional domestic comedy, even as the satire sharpens. There are some damned funny moments as Herschel’s old-fashioned patriarchal attitudes come up against modern mores concerning race, sexuality, gender and religion and he becomes a celebrity all over again.
An American Pickle didn’t get brilliant reviews and I think that’s partly down to the expression of views that are unacceptably shocking by modern standards. The film gets away with it by putting them into the mouth of an outsider – an innocent from an earlier age. It was a sneaky way to satirise the sometimes tortured ethics and the moral ambiguities of fashionable wokeness. It got up some people’s noses but I applaud it!
My companion and I liked this a lot more than the reviews led us to expect.