Please Note: The screen shots used here are taken from the DVD portion of Master of the House.
"A film about the importance of the little things" is an apt description (from historian Casper Tyjerg) for Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1925 film Master of the House, now released as a lovely addition to the other Dreyer greats in the Criterion Collection.
A scaled-down charmer in which a tyrannical husband and father comes to learn the error of his ways, Dreyer offsets Master of the House's cozy, somewhat familiar story with a concrete sense of character and place - along with densely edited cuts unusual for a silent-era film. Lacking the raw, dazzling power of what would arguably be his masterpiece, 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc, the film nevertheless still stands as an ahead-of-its-time example of Dreyer's consummate cinematic skills. As an odd entry in his filmography not dealing with spiritual matters, the film comes recommended especially for those who find the director's work too pedantic or preachy.
For Master of the House, Dreyer collaborated with playwright Sven Rindom to bring what was then a popular stage play to the screen. While the story is largely confined to an average city apartment dwelling, Dreyer manages to expand on its stagy origins and communicate the rich goings-on in this household's daily ritual in the opening scenes. A woman named Ida (Astrid Holm) is seen hurredly going through the morning's chores, preparing breakfast, changing the baby's diaper, helping her son with his schoolwork, doing the laundry, employing older daughter Karen (Karin Nellemose) to assist. Enter the husband, Viktor (Johannes Meyer), who spends his waking moments complaining at Ida's attempts to cater to his every whim. Viktor is a self-centered crank who clearly doesn't appreciate the effort it takes for Ida and the others to run the household. Hung up on his own eroding role (it's eventually revealed that he lost his business), Viktor's myopic need to rule over the family with an iron hand takes a toll on everyone - even his imposing former nanny, Miss Madsen (Mathilde Nielsen), who arrives daily to help ease some of Ida's burdens. The lady affectionately known as "Mads" is as much of a taskmaster as Viktor himself, and she's spurred to act out when Ida shows signs of experiencing a nervous breakdown. Aided by her concerned mother, Ida goes off to an undisclosed location for a soul-healing rest while Mads is left to run the house (and Viktor).
Master of the House can be broadly classified as a comedy, even though the humor emerges in a subtle way. That gentle style of humor becomes evident when Mads takes over in Ida's absence and forces Viktor to take on a traditionally feminine role with the housework. Viktor reverts to being a semi-obedient child with Mads, an experience that makes him more sensitive to the damage he caused with the family. All of the main performers do excellent, nuanced work (again, not in the usual gestural, "silent movie" method), but I was especially impressed with Mathilde Nielsen as Mads. A holdover from the original stage production, Nielsen inhabits Mads with a sturdy, indomitable spirit which may remind some of American character actress Jane Darwell. Her gumption as she finally tells off Viktor - itemizing all the crap that women like her have to take from men like him - forms the highlight of this delightful movie.
Master of the House's gentle lesson in humility is enhanced with Dreyer's innovative use of dense edits and a variety of camera angles (this is definitely not the usual sort of stagy, proscenium-bound silent). The characters are portrayed with a lot of heart and compassion (Viktor is a brute, yet to a degree sympathetic), while the story has a strikingly modern and female-affirmative spin. I noticed similar themes between this and Satyajit Ray's The Big City, made 40-some years later.
The Blu Ray:
Criterion's dual-format release of Master of the House duplicates the film and supplements on Blu Ray and DVD. The packaging comes in a clear snap-case with the discs overlapping while staying separated. On the front cover and booklet, the film's themes are interpreted with charming silhouette art from Beatrice Coron.
Criterion's Master of the House uses a 2K digital restoration of the film done by Copenhagen's Palladium (the studio which originally produced this film) in 2010. While Palladium didn't alter the constant flicker effect inherent in the source print, their work yielded a gorgeous looking cleanup which maintains the detail and grainy texture of the original print while scrubbing it clean of dirt, scratches and other imperfections. For '20s vintage film stock, it looks great (a few isolated scenes are taken from more degraded, blurry-edged source material).
The disc sports an atmospheric solo piano score from composer Gillian B. Anderson, using cues reconstructed from the film's original premiere. The pleasant, pristinely mixed 24-bit track incorporates melodies from various classical pieces.
Not quite as feature-packed as other standalone Criterions, Master of the House nevertheless contains a few of their usual worthwhile, professionally done supplements. An Interview with Casper Tyjerg (15:27) has the Danish film historian discussing Master of the House in the context of Dreyer's career and what his contemporaries were doing at the time. A fascinating Visual Essay (22:45) has film historian David Bordwell, in voice-over, pointing out the various stylistic innovations Dreyer used in the film. The set's accompanying 24-page Booklet contains an essay by historian Mark Le Fanu, along with vintage publicity photos and details on the restoration.
For those who spend their days idly wondering "I wish the Criterion Collection had more silents," Master of the House is here to answer your prayers. Carl Theodor Dreyer crafts this humane 1925 comedy-drama with a surprising amount of boldness, which gives this gentle tale of domestic comeuppance some bite. Not as devastating or stylistically daring as The Passion of Joan of Arc, perhaps, but a thoughtfully made delight all the same. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.