Reel Norden : Nordic Film & History

The Ox -- Behavior

The Ox is a Swedish film focused on the life of an impoverished farm hand, Helge Roos, and his family during the mid-nineteenth century. The film displayed many behavioral norms of nineteenth century Sweden. Major behaviors depicted in the film include influences of hunger, moral values and infidelity.


The film begins with the main character, Helge, slaughtering his employer's ox. The cause of this action was desperation due to the fear of starvation for Helge and his family. This film is set in 1867 Sweden, a time when many people were struggling to survive due to a drought that the nation was experiencing.(1) Food shortages and an increase in the nation’s mortality rate were reported in the late 1860s.(2) Hunger was the driving force behind Helge's actions. In the film, Helge stated that he lost control and wasn't his true self when he murdered the ox. Loss of control is a valid scientific side effect of severe hunger and starvation. Research has shown that hunger can cause alterations to pathways within the brain. These changes cause individuals to take more risks to obtain food when they are starving, much like predators are willing to attack more dangerous prey when they are hungry than when they are healthy.(3) Helge may have been influenced by this physiological occurrence. He knew that he would be betraying both his employer and his strong moral values by killing the ox, and also that he risked being caught and imprisoned. However, he was willing to take the chance to feed himself and his family. The film demonstrates normal human behavior in response to deprivation and a need to protect one’s family and loved ones.

Moral Values

Throughout the film, the characters constantly talk about “the right thing to do” and how important it is to follow the rules set forth by the Bible and God. After Helge killed the ox, his wife was amazed that he could have committed such a significant sin. She also felt that it was a terrible betrayal of their employer, Svenning. The themes of guilt and forgiveness are very prevalent throughout the film. This behavioral depiction is very representative of what a devout religious community in rural Sweden would have been like. Moral and religious values were a primary focus of most education throughout Sweden at this time, and these values were commonly taught by members of the clergy.(4) This is depicted in the film when members of the community are shown meeting to go through the Ten Commandments and other moral guidelines. This is known as a catechetical examination meeting, usually for first communion and confirmation, but also for continuing faith education. The pastor would test the members of his church on such things as the Ten Commandments, give them a score, and list the results in the parish records.(5) The pastor, or vicar, played an important role in nineteenth century Swedish communities. Not only was the pastor the religious leader, but he was also a role model for the members of the parish.(6) In a state church, the pastor was also a civil servant, a representative of the government. In the film, the vicar is the moral center of the community, and everyone looks up to him. He is the one to lead the bible studies, he told Helge what was right to do, and he convinced the community and Svenning that it was right to forgive Helge. The behavior of the vicar is accurate for the time, and the emphasis on guilt, forgiveness, and doing what is right is representative of the important role that moral values had in Swedish rural communities.

Drunkenness was a social problem in the nineteenth century. It was one one the reasons behind a high mortality rate of middle-aged men in Sweden. This was particularly a problem concerning men, since women were not supposed to get drunk. Consumption of liquor became a tradition, people would regularly consume alcohol after work. People also started showing up in church drunk, ending up with some people falling asleep and others misbehaving. Priests started to lecture people about alcohol so they would come to an agreement not to drink alcoholic beverages. A common excuse was that they needed something to keep themselves warm in the cold winters. One priest suggested lighting a fire outside the church and drinking warm milk instead. The authorities increased taxes on liquor in order to prevent the high consumption of alcohol and to increase income to the state. The drunkenness can be related to Elfrida’s prior suitor, Flyckt, who continually showed up drunk at their doorstep.(7)


Another behavior depicted in the film was the act of infidelity. While Helge was in prison, Elfrida was struggling to support herself and eventually gave in to the advances of a man working on the railroad in exchange for food. This affair resulted in an illegitimate child and caused tension in Helge and Elfrida's relationship. Although this behavior was against Swedish and religious core values, it was fairly common in nineteenth-century Sweden. Illegitimacy was more frequent at this time due to the number of male workers moving from place to place for work, as was the case for the railway worker with whom Elfrida had sexual relations.(8) The behavior of the railway worker in the film is very accurate for nineteenth century Sweden.

The Ox accurately portrays many of the behaviors that would have been present in nineteenth century Sweden. Given the economic and social issues of the time, it was realistic for the characters to behave in the way that they did. The film depicts an emphasis on moral values in the community, the influence of hunger and the natural response to deprivation, as well as displaying the act of infidelity in the Scandinavia. The film effectively demonstrates the role of the pastor, or vicar, and the significance of moral values and religious beliefs.

(1) Kevin Thomas, "Movie Review: 'The Ox': A Moral Tale of Simplicity: The work, a 1991 Oscar nominee directed by Sven Nykvist, is set during a drought that drove many Swedes to find new lives in the American Midwest," Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1992, accessed March 22, 2017,
(2) Donald Harman Akenson, Ireland, Sweden, and the Great European Migration, 1815-1914 (Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014), 142.
(3) Max Planck Gesellschaft, "Hunger affects decision-making and perception of risk," ScienceDaily (2013), accessed March 23, 2017,
(4) Robert Thornberg, “The Lack of Professional Knowledge in Values Education,” Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies (2008): 24, accessed March 22, 2017,
(5) Ulla Nilsdotter Jeub, "Parish Records: Digitalized Material from the Demographic Data Base," Centre for Demographic and Ageing Research (2009), accessed April 11, 2017,
(6) Tine Van Osselaer and Patrick Pasture, Christian homes: religion, family and domesticity in the 19th and 20th centuries (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014), 54.
(7) Sam Willner and Jan Sundin, Social change and health in Sweden 250 years of politics and practice (np:  Swedish National Institute of Public Health, 2007), 104-06, accessed March 23, 2017,
(8) Hans Marks, "On the Art of Differentiating: Proletarianization and Illegitimacy in Northern Sweden," Social Science History, 18, no. 1, (1994): 95.

Written and edited by Grete Hamnes, Ulrik Sagbakken, Jacob Aberle and Tim Carlson.

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