‘Master of the House’
It’s telling that the Criterion Collection touts Master of the House as a comedy. So regularly austere are the more popularly known works of Danish great Carl Theodor Dreyer, that perhaps in comparison, yes, this is at times funny. As a standard comedy, it’s admittedly weak; as a drama, however, it’s largely effective. Historian Casper Tybjerg, in an interview included on the new Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, makes a (only slightly convincing) case for the film as “basically” a comedy, noting that it was even made at a studio identified with comedic films. But more accurate is David Bordwell’s description of the film, which he mentions in a visual essay also included. In its employment of “silent film conventions of domestic drama,” it forms something more akin to a chamber play, so prevalent in the silent cinema. What sets this apart from some of these other films is Dreyer’s notable attention to detail. As Tybjerg does quite rightly state, Master of the House is very much “a film about the importance of little things.”
The film begins with keen attention on these little things. Ida Frandsen (Astrid Holm) is introduced, along with her three children, as she begins her morning duties: preparing breakfast, doing the laundry, cleaning, and so on. Manic though it appears, she seems totally in control. Presumably, she is the master of this house. But no, the titular master is the tyrannical Viktor (Johannes Meyer), her husband, for whom all this work is apparently done. Utterly helpless, Viktor apparently awakens in a bad mood. He barks for his slippers (in the nightstand right next to him, which his daughter nevertheless fetches), he complains when the coffee isn’t waiting for him at the table, and he doesn’t like the clothes hanging up to dry. There’s not enough butter on his bread either, so Ida, unbeknownst to him, scrapes the butter off hers and adds it to his (he thinks she was simply being stingy). These are some of the little things Dreyer makes us see with sure focus, emphasizing their importance and the importance of Viktor’s obliviousness.
What a morning. The sad part is this is routine. Ida is in a near constant state of fear and anxiety due to the cruelty and irrational expectations of her husband. He’s never content with all that she does for him, yet he even chides her for getting up and working: “Must you run around all the time?” To keep up with his demands and the demands of the house, she must. The family is not well off either; we gather as much by holes in shoes and minimal food options, but we’re told outright later that Viktor is, in fact, unemployed.
Dreyer certainly makes his point in these early scenes, and if the film has any major faults, it’s in the redundancy of variations on Viktor’s harshness. By the 30-minute mark, it’s clear to the point of being tedious: this is no lovable grouch à la W.C. Fields or even Archie Bunker — Viktor is simply a bastard.
Ida makes excuses for his behavior — his lost business has made him bitter — and she argues that they’ve had their good years. But Viktor’s old nanny, Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), who is still a visiting fixture at the house, isn’t buying it. With Ida’s mother, the two elderly women conspire to give Viktor his comeuppance. They get Ida out of the house (not telling Viktor where she is for more than a month) and Mads takes over. Since Mads dares to challenge and talk back to the brute (functioning more or less as the comic relief), things begin to change. Put in his place, Viktor grows subservient to Mads, just as he was as a child. He does his own chores and soon sees the error of his ways. He’s even friendly to birds! “His pompous sense of entitlement is punctured in due course by the machinations of the clever old family nanny,” writes Mark Le Fanu in an excellent essay that’s part of this Criterion package, “… and the film culminates, as all the best comedies do, with equilibrium restored and the womenfolk quietly vindicated.” While Mads gets an odd sort of delight from seeing Viktor humiliated, and apparently changing his infant daughter is humiliating (?), the desired outcome, in any case, is achieved. Viktor gains an appreciation for all that his wife does. As a concluding title card states: “SHE is the Heart of the Home.”
Everything in Master of the House is very well photographed, not unusual for Dreyer, with exquisite close-ups and camera maneuvers that are most striking due to their infrequency. As would be evinced in his greatest work, there’s also a particular devotion to composition. Essentially taking place in one location, it’s notable how Dreyer manages to prevent the film from ever feeling cramped. Movable studio walls helped open up the interiors, but more than that, ingenious alterations in camera placement and distance keep the rooms and the action (for lack of a better word) freshly depicted. Dreyer’s skill at filming interior space is expertly analyzed in the Bordwell essay, where he also comments on the nuanced performances of the film. This might be the most unheralded aspect of the movie. There’s little emotionally explosive drama, so it’s easy to overlook the subtlety of the actors’ expression and movement, but fortunately, Dreyer’s direction makes sure such features are paid their due attention.
Not of the caliber of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s finest achievements (Bordwell, Le Fanu, and Tybjerg argue otherwise), all of which are also available from Criterion, Master of the House is nonetheless a vital release, if nothing else because it marks the first American home video version of the film, and anything to boost the availability of the Dreyer canon is a surely a good thing.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT