Reel Norden : Nordic Film & History

The Ox-- Chronology & Events

Set in the 1860s, The Ox chronicles a man and his family’s struggles during a famine in Sweden that drove many to the brink of madness. The father of a small child and the husband to a young wife, Helge Roos finds himself a victim to this famine. This is evidenced in the opening scenes of the film, as the audience witnesses Helge killing his master’s ox to supply food for his family. This event sets in motion the plot of The Ox; we witness Helge experience extreme guilt due to the burden he has to bear. This analysis will examine the events in Sweden leading up to when the film begins, the historical effects of the famine in relation to the film, and the plausibility of the the actions in the film.

Famine in Sweden

Sweden faced a debilitating famine in 1867-69. Farmers described these years as, “the dry one,” “the wet one,” and “the hard one.” All these years caused close to complete crop failures, leading to a significant food shortage that impacted many families.(1) The opening of the film bears witness to the brutal ox-killing scene that was not only accurate but also necessary to provide the audience with the full effect of Sweden’s harsh winters and low crop years in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Many knew the effects of starvation could include death. Helge knew it could be only a matter of time before his daughter Anna succumbed to starvation, hence his decision to kill the ox.

The weather is Sweden also played a role in the starvation of many. The growing season in southern Sweden is about one hundred days longer than the northern season. With unpredictable weather, (including very unusual weather patterns in 1867-69), this resulted in a shortage of crops.(2) The events in the film took place around 1866-73, the heart of the famine. The weather resulted in a shortage of crops, thus producing a widespread famine, similar to that displayed in the film.


The Effects of the Famine

The film opens on the scene depicting Helge falling victim to starvation as the audience witnesses his killing of his master’s ox. This is an excellent starting point for the film because it demonstrates the effects the famine had on people during this time. The famine had many short and long-term effects; most notably on quality of life and crime rates.  

Helge and Elfrida Roos lived on their master’s land, in a servant’s house.  Later in the film they celebrate Christmas in their master’s house.  The comparison clearly shows that the Roos’s are in the lower class.  Disasters, including famines, hit the lower classes the hardest, having a much larger effect on them than upper classes.  A study of the Great Finnish Famine revealed that if a person were born just before the Great Finnish Famine, they were likely to experience a lower life expectancy than if the famine did not occur.(3) While this study referred to the Finnish Famine, Sweden experienced a famine at this time too, caused by similar conditions as in Finland. The experiences in either country at this time were relatively similar. The Roos family experienced a famine, and a harsh decrease in quality of life, as members of the lower class.

Anna, the baby, would be doubly affected because she was born during the famine.  Not only would she experience a much lower life expectancy than someone born that year if there was not a famine, but she also would face an increased risk of illness. Childhood diseases spiked during this time period.(4) Helge defended his actions by saying it was for Anna, so she would not get sick and die. Furthermore, the family unit in nineteenth century Scandinavia was centered around the children; which is again reflected by Helge and Elfrida’s choice to keep the meat of the slain ox and support each other in the wake of this event.(5) Helge’s choices to support his family without considering the consequences relates to the short-term effects of the famine.

Historically, crime increases in times of poor economic conditions and the Great Famine saw the same growth in crime as other disasters. Generally, Sweden experienced a great decrease in thefts during the later half of the nineteenth century.  The exception to this decrease is a notable spike in thefts during the years of the famine and two years afterwards.(6) Helge being desperate enough to kill the ox, knowing there would be consequences, reflects the increased crime rates of the famine.

The Ox was historically accurate in its portrayal of the famine in Sweden. Helge was a victim to committing crimes, as were most Swedes during the difficult time. The famine was a time in Sweden's history when much of the population had to rely on drastic measures in order to keep themselves and their families alive, as was seen in The Ox.

(1) Donald H. Akenson, Donald H., Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration, 1815-1914, (McGill-Queen's University Press: Montreal, 2011), 140.
(2) Swedish Board of Agriculture, “Facts About Swedish Agriculture,” Jordbruks Verket, 3, accessed May 1, 2017,
(3) Gabriele Doblhammer, Gerard J. van den Berg and L. H. Lumey.  "A Re-Analysis of the Long-Term Effects on Life Expectancy of the Great Finnish Famine of 1866-68," Population Studies 67, (2013): 318.
(4) Doblhammer, “A Re-Analysis of the Long-Term Effects,” 320.
(5)  Anu Pylkkanen, “Women and Family Law in Scandinavia,” SJFE: Women and Law in Europe, accessed November 1, 2014,
(6) Hanns Von Hofer, and Henrik Tham, “Theft in Sweden 1831-1998,” Journal of  Scandinavian Studies in Criminology & Crime Prevention 1, no. 2, (2000): 198.

Written and edited by Anna Buan & Marah Moy, and Phil Kuball.


This page has paths:

This page references: