Few directors, let alone Carl Theodor Dreyer, would seem likely to land titles on lists of “auteurist feminist farces of 1925,” yet Dreyer’s Master Of The House fits that bill rather snugly. Criterion’s new edition makes the case for canonizing the film alongside his more widely known The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), Day Of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).
Released three years before Joan, Master concerns a different sort of sainthood—that of housewife Ida (Astrid Holm), who cares for her husband, Viktor (Johannes Meyer), a retentive, domineering man who’s turned vicious after losing his business. His fits of pique—insisting that his coffee be ready the moment he enters the room or complaining that their young son is a scamp who doesn’t earn the food that’s put in front of him—are rendered in comically exaggerated intertitles: “Porridge with lumps! … How very ingenious!” “Cold meat patties? … Presumably, you could not be bothered to heat them?”
Viktor’s old nanny, Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), and mother-in-law (Clara Schønfeld) don’t like the husband’s mistreatment of his wife, so they conspire to send Ida away and teach Viktor a lesson about how the woman of the house is the homefront’s true engine. Mads, who gives Viktor Proustian sensations of corporal punishment from his childhood, is one of the few people capable of humbling the man, whose about-face is rapid and sincere. (“Our ‘Hero,’ who recently held the whip, learned how to bend down.”) At the same time, in the film’s lone departure from its otherwise strikingly progressive gender politics, Ida can’t cope with being separated from her family. (“The thousand domestic chores had kept her going, but now that she had stepped off the treadmill, she broke down completely.”)
Yes, the premise sounds like something out of a mid-’90s Robin Williams vehicle, but the movie’s purity and spareness are quintessential Dreyer. Set largely in a single apartment, with décor (especially the clock) that anticipates Ordet, the film seems remarkably stripped-down and economical. In one of the DVD supplements, the incomparable David Bordwell delves into Dreyer’s “fresh way of filming interior spaces”—an achievement, Bordwell argues, that would be radical at any time in film history, not just in the 1920s.
For those who might find Master insufficiently Dreyerian, note that it’s fundamentally a tale of repentance—an admonishment to honor thy wife (which, according to Bordwell’s commentary and Mark Le Fanu’s liner notes, is a better translation of the original title). Dreyer was not Billy Wilder, and if anything keeps Master from feeling as timeless as Ordet, it’s the movie’s mildly strained attempts at wit. But the film is essential viewing for anyone invested in the director’s development. Criterion’s (perhaps appropriately) spartan pressing also includes an interview with Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg.