Master of the House Review

Interestingly the BFI have decided to release Master of the House onto DVD at the exact same time as another of their Carl Theodor Dreyer titles, Ordet. Perhaps inevitably we’re forced to note the similarities, and in a number of ways the two aren’t all that different. Though Master of the House leans heavily towards the side of comedy, or at the very least that of a lighter concoction, both are domestic dramas confined almost solely to a single setting and take family tensions as their primary focus. Furthermore, it’s intriguing to note Dreyer’s command as director, even back in 1925. Though no doubt initially conceived of as an “entertainment” in the strictest sense of the word, Master of the House is approached with the utmost seriousness by its maker. The tale of a household tyrant who refers to his children as “brats” and “scoundrels” and treats his wife with continual disdain until she is forced to do something about it, this could have been a proto-screwball comedy or perhaps just another minor silent movie. Yet in Dreyer’s hands – hands which come to the film with the same level of respect he would pay The Passion of Joan of Arc, say, or Gertrud - it becomes an often incredibly powerful work and one whose effect is considerably long-lasting.

As a demonstration it’s worth considering how much work has gone into the pre-production stages. The casting is essential given that Master of the House transposes a dialogue-heavy play to silent form and as such has to rely even more fully on the faces than would have normally been the case. Of course, this is Dreyer’s forte and so many of his films - Ordet, The Passion of Joan of Arc - leave memories not so much of individual scenes or moments, but rather the manner in which he captures those onscreen. Indeed, we find much the same situation here with Astrid Holm perfectly embodying the hard-working yet long-suffering wife. Importantly, she’s able to satisfy such a type – somewhat plain and innocent – but also has the quality with which to back it up. Essentially, we believe in her, and the same is true elsewhere; certainly, Johannes Meyer’s open-mouthed indignance as the husband is so palatable he has the character nailed in an instant.

Dreyer’s other coup during the early stages, as noted both in Tom Milne’s article found in the liner notes and the disc’s attendant Min Metier documentary, is the refusal to use the standard studio sets. Instead, he had the family’s tiny little dwelling constructed entirely from scratch, and deservedly so. It brings with it an incredible realism and occupies what must be at least 90% of the screen times – two factors which no doubt help immensely in relaying the claustrophobia of Nielsen’s existence. Indeed, the restrictiveness is key, but not in the sense of mere filmed theatre. Given Dreyer’s concentration on the realism, we’re seeing a genuine room and home (or so it appears) not a stage. In other words the nightmare which goes on inside their walls feels utterly real.

And yet whilst this makes for powerful cinema and allows the film to make a genuine impact on our emotions, Master of the House is also partly a comedy and it’s true that Dreyer doesn’t quite manage this area to quite the same degree as he does the drama. Once the plotting is set in motion, the film becomes very easy in its developments and reaches unequivocally happy conclusions. Certainly, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this – it proves itself to be perfectly agreeable in fact – but then you could also argue that the results are therefore minor Dreyer. And yet you could argue that your ultimate response comes down to perception: if this is just another minor silent movie, then Dreyer has elevated it to something really potent; if this is a Dreyer film in the strictest sense then, fine though it is, it doesn’t quite deserve a ranking alongside his later masterpieces.

The Disc

Given the age of Master of the House we shouldn’t expect too much and indeed the (untinted) print used here isn’t in the greatest of conditions. Scratches are prevalent as are other signs of damage, although through this we do still get a pleasing clarity and an image which is, if taken in the right light, perfectly watchable. Certainly, there would appear to be no technical flaws on the BFI’s part, the only possible complaint being that the intertitles have been switched to English language ones as opposed to utilising subtitles. (Although, with that said, this may very well have been the only option open to them.) As for the soundtrack, here we find a piano score present in DD2.0 and coming across perfectly well. Of course, there’s little to contend with, but then also no complaints.

It’s the extras, however, which may be deemed most important especially as they contain two of Dreyer’s public information shorts from the 1940s and Torben Skydt Jensen’s 1995 feature-length documentary Carl Th. Dreyer: Min Metier. Of the three, it is understandably the latter which is likely to gain the most attention, and deservedly so. Here we find a chronological journey through the director’s work, from the silent days up to Gertrud, with discussion of various unrealised projects and the short films. There are slight problems owing to the lack of clips for some of the titles touched on, but given the number of surviving participants and family members, it adds up to insightful hour and a half. (Also note that the subtitles covering the Danish language are non-optional despite being generated by the disc and not burnt into the source.)

Elsewhere, the two shorts prove equally intriguing. Good Mothers looks at a refuge for single mothers and the manner in which they are taught to look after their newborns, whilst They Caught the Ferry is an anti-speeding piece shot, somewhat surprisingly, in a manner akin to Claude Lelouch’s C’était un rendezvous! Rounding off the package we also find a packed booklet made up of various liner notes, old and new, plus numerous stills. (Both of the short films are in Danish and come with optional English subtitling.)

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