OXEN (aka The Ox]

Sweden, 1991, 92 min.

director.gif (905 bytes)Sven Nykvist


Stellan Skarsgård - Helge Roos
Ewa Fröling - Elfrida Roos
Max von Sydow - The Vicar
Lennart Hjulström - Svenning Gustafsson
Liv Ullmann - Mrs. Gustafsson
Bjorn Granath - Flyckt
Helge Jordal - Navvy
Rikard Wolff - Johannes
Björn Gustafson - Officer in command
Jaqui Safra - Shop Owner
Erland Josephson - Sigvard Silver
Agneta Pruetz - Old Woman


22 November 1991 [Sweden]


  • 1992 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film

  • Presented in the "Un Certain Regard" category at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival

[Click on photo for larger image]


Set in rural southern Sweden during the catastrophic crop failures and famine of the 1860s, Nykvist’s restrained and expressive debut film as a director tells of a family’s struggle to survive. The moral crisis that ensues is encapsulated in the figure of the ox: the only source for food and yet the only means for the survival of their landlord’s farm.

On Christmas 1867, Helge, a young tenant farmer, peers out a window pane and sees an ox belonging to his employer.  Moments later he kills the animal. His shocked wife clutching her baby, asks her husband how he could have done such a thing. "What could I do?" he asks. "We have to eat." In an instant, Helge has set in motion a sequence of events that provoke a wide range of complex thoughts and emotions with the utmost simplicity. Is there a degree of desperation so overpowering that you will do anything, not so much to save yourself, but rather the lives of your loved ones?

button_box.gif (205 bytes)DIRECTOR SVEN NYKVIST

Amazingly, this was Nykvist's directorial debut at the age of 69, and OXEN is actually an intimate re-telling of a story told to him by his father. It takes place, and was filmed, in Beckshire, the region of southern Sweden to which most Swedish-American families in Minnesota trace their heritage. Nykvist was interested not in the emigrant families, however, but those who stayed behind and endured the ravages of famine. Not surprisingly, the story is told as much with images as with words. "It's not difficult to understand why I wanted to make the film. There is very little dialogue, and I had the feeling that I would tell the story with the camera, making it as visual as possible. But the main reason is that the story has followed me my whole life. I told myself that I wasn't going to die before I made that picture."

He had originally written a synopsis of the story in the mid-70s. Years later, through Woody Allen, he met American TV producer Jean Doumanian (Saturday Night Live) at a dinner party and told her the tale. According to the first-time director, she was immediately interested in producing it, even after he "explained it would have to be filmed in Swedish." The screenplay was ultimately co-written with editor Lass Summanen.

Nykvist endows OXEN with an exquisitely photographed sense of melancholia. The wretchedness is suspended only once, in a scene that is all the more memorable for its rarity: on his way home from prison, Helge encounters a vivacious country woman who persuades him to dance at a local gathering. They're attracted to each other. She wants to kiss him--it would be his first bit of emotional, physical warmth in years. Instead, he tenderly caresses her with his eyes and gently touches her cheek before moving on. Not a word is spoken. The scene is brilliant - a rare, precious cinematic moment.

button_box.gif (205 bytes)IMAGES

button_box.gif (205 bytes)POSTERS

button_box.gif (205 bytes)PRAISE FOR THE FILM:

"Grim, somber, morally resonant and unusually moving, Nykvist is a master of composition, with every detail seen and every moment sharp and clear -- this is one film that lingers in the memory longer than you might expect.
"  ...Austin Chronicle

"Sven Nykvist brings a somber artistry to Oxen, a sparsely worded film well suited to the legendary cinematographer's latent directorial talents. A harsh portrait of rural life in 19th-century Sweden, this deeply moral story springs from an incident that took place during a famine in the 1860s. The facts, worn away over time, take on the neat shape and bleak tone of a Calvinist fable in Nykvist's version."  ...Washington Post

"What's most impressive here is the way this film looks, especially the unforced and lovely handling of landscape and period, and the purity of the performances."   ...Chicago Reader

"The great cinematographer Sven Nykvist makes a commendable directorial debut with this simple but compelling tale, each frame having the dazzling immediacy of a painting." ...Entertainment Weekly

"A spiritual odyssey of a study of the psychology of guilt, an impeccable period piece depicting hardship amid the most beautiful of settings, a love story, an affirmation of the power of faith in the face of cruel injustice and a celebration of community life sustained by religious belief." ...Los Angeles Times

"The film is very much in the stern, silent, pensive manner of Bergman's work, and Nykvist carries on the tradition quite well. As might be expected, it is stunningly photographed (by Dan Myhrman) and the characters are very well played... If you have missed this kind of solid but deliberate storytelling since Bergman retired, you'll find Oxen a most satisfying venture."   ...Deseret News

"There is a kind of biblical simplicity and inevitability to the story that Mr. Nykvist makes ponderous with Dan Myhrman's all-too-beautiful camerawork. The individual images are sometimes stunning. The lighting often suggests the work of Vermeer."   ...NY Times

"This 1991 film from Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer is worth waiting for. Sven Nykvist has been responsible for some of the most visually stunning films of the past 40 years." ...The Salt Lake Tribune

"Oxen is a powerful exploration of poverty, struggle, guilt, punishment and forgiveness. As might be expected of Sven Nykvist this is a beautiful film to watch." ...Talkingpix.co.uk