In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s more important than ever to listen to Ukrainian voices. Carol of the Bells shines a spotlight on the Ukrainian people. It’s an expansive war drama that highlights the Ukrainian experience, from being occupied by Germany and then by the Soviet Union. At its core is a tribute to an old Ukrainian melody that has transcended its association as a classic holiday tune.
Carol of the Bells tells the story of three families, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish living in Ukraine at the very beginning of World War 2. They initially mistrust one another viscerally. They come together, however, in the spirit of fraternity and merriment and eventually out of necessity. Loss comes for each of the characters as the war rages on, and in the post-war Soviet period. As their numbers dwindle, their hope does not. It’s what carries them through.
While Carol of the Bells features the melting pot of cultures that has always existed in Ukraine, it doesn’t fully examine Ukraine’s role in the Holocaust. Of course, there were Ukrainians who aided their Jewish neighbors, and saved them from the destruction of the Holocaust. It must be noted, however, that a significant portion of the Ukrainian population actually aided nazi efforts to rid the country of its Jewish citizens. Carol of the Bells never quite interrogates this legacy, and focuses instead on the exceptions rather than the rule.
If historical liberties (and inaccurate Jewish representation a la lighting of a Hanukkiah on what’s meant to be Rosh Hashanah) can be set aside, the performances are set to endear you. The children, in particular, elevate this story from the mundane. Seeing the passage of history through their eyes offers a new and jarring perspective on just how destructive war is to children in particular. War is so often represented in the abstract. Stories, even fictional ones like Carol of the Bells, that focus on children’s’ experiences of war and violence is a horrifying but necessary one.
Carol of the Bells never had an easy feat, however. Telling a story this expansive requires a massive effort. Chronicling the history of Ukraine this way is a sobering reminder of how close the calamities of World War 2 were to the occupation of the country by the Soviet Union. It’s a reminder that the people can hardly have been expected to heal from the trauma when the trauma never ended. It’s devastating to think of the reverberating impacts that this successive trauma has had on generations of Ukrainians.
Carol of the Bells also provided an interesting venue to explore the idea of the ‘Horseshoe Theory’. In essence, what this theory stipulates is that far right and far left extremism, in their severest forms, are essentially indistinguishable. While there are certainly problems with this theory, particularly as it relates to the Holocaust, an argument can certainly be made that to many, these extreme ideologies vary very little to those who find themselves under these regimes. To be clear, I am referring to actual tyrannical regimes, not far-right ideas of “communism” or “leftism” that offers a completely false narrative. Particularly when looking at Soviet history, however, it could be a useful framework to tell the stories of those who lived through these regimes.
Carol of the Bells offers a tribute to the resiliency of the Ukrainian people, while presenting a stylized version of the nation’s history. While imperfect, it makes for a powerful viewing experience, and is a reminder of what unites us all. It’s a timely story to tell, and will be sure to prompt reflection on the history of Ukraine. At it’s core, it also offers a message about the power of music to bind people together, across backgrounds and contexts.
Carol of the Bells had its Ontario Premiere at the 2022 Toronto Jewish Film Festival.