#706 Master of the House
1925 // Denmark // Carl Th. Dreyer
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, best remembered for the masterpieces namely The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932) and Ordet (1955), had begun working in film industry ever since the early 1910s. Master of the House, Dreyer’s earliest work that is included in the Criterion Collection (and weirdly the only Dreyer film released in high-definition, at least for now in 2016), is his seventh feature made just three years prior to Joan. Although the film is not regarded as highly as his later works, Master could be served as an entry film for “beginners” into Dreyer’s transcendent universe, in which the story is rooted more domestically in favor to realism.
The film centers around the family of Frandsen. The domineering, ferocious father Viktor (played by Johannes Meyer in a sublime performance) mentally and verbally abused his empathetic wife Ida (played by Astrid Holm, echoing Holm’s prior role as the saintly Salvation Army sister Edit in The Phantom Carriage) and their children. Not until his family’s aged nanny Mads (Mathilde Nielsen) stepped up to take measure in reeducating the patriarchal “master” that harmony eventually be restored. An tyrannical male figure oppressing feeble wife/daughter/lady has been used periodically to create conflicts in melodrama, from Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) to aforementioned The Phantom Carriage, but none other than Master could infuse such power of feminism into a witty comedy.
Master is far from a conventional slap-stick comedy or a whimsical satire, but the prevailing temperament of playfulness when one witnessed Viktor’s way of penance in contrary to his former hideous behavior is comical at its core. The mundane household routines of Ida as a housewife, from preparing breakfast to warming husband’s slippers while he was still resting in bed, turned reciprocally into a manifestation of repentance when Viktor was forced to carry out those works instead at the absent of his sick wife. Here, the nanny Mads played an indispensable role in saving the near irrevocable marriage, she encouraged Ida to rebel against the tyrant, resorted to drastic measures to restore Viktor’s decency which was faded upon endless predicaments through years. It was the women who brought the final victory and saved the manhood.
Ninety percent of the screening time takes place indoor in the decent, uncluttered, middle-class apartment, meticulously captured and framed by cinematographer George Schnéevoigt, edited unobtrusively by Dreyer himself to create an easily comprehensible domestic space. Characters’ glances often hinted at the psychological status and illustrated the spatial relationship simultaneously as an effective mise en scène, foretelling the more austere style in Joan three years later. Master, based on the play Tyrannens fald by Svend Rindom, contains a story that is still resonated in the 21st century, just as the introductory inter-title card suggests, it celebrates the true hero (heroine) in the family, while Dreyer is always the true master behind the curtain.