Master of the House (1925) is not the best-known among Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, and its subject matter—personal relationships within a single, lower middle class Danish household—may seem to lack the ambition of films like The Passion of Joan of Arc or Days of Wrath. However, a closer look at Dreyer’s 1925 film reveals it to be not only an astute psychological portrait of a household gone astray and then set to rights, but also the work of a master who built on the continuity conventions established by D.W. Griffith in order to create an intimate masterpiece.
The first thing you see in Master of the House is women going about the many daily chores necessary to keep a household running smoothly. While Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer) sleeps, his wife Ida (Astrid Holm) and daughter Karen (Karin Nellemose) are already hard at work, cleaning the stove and lighting the fire, mending clothing, tidying the apartment, cleaning shoes, and making breakfast. This work will continue throughout the day, making a point without having to state it—women’s work is truly never done.
Unfortunately, Viktor does not appreciate his wife’s devotion, behaving more like a spoiled child than a loving father and husband, and bellows at her (and anyone else within earshot) if there’s not enough butter on his bread or there’s a hole in the sole of his shoe (never mind that he’s been out of work, and she’s doing her best to stretch their resources to support a family of five).
Older, wiser heads intervene, in the form of Ida’s mother Alvida (Clara Schønfeld) and Viktor’s former nanny Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), who remains a friend of the family as well as a moral force to be reckoned with. Like any good psychologist, Mads waits until Ida decides that changes must be made, then steps in and teaches Viktor a lesson.
The story of Master of the House, that of a good woman victimized by a tyrannical husband, could have been played for tear-jerking melodrama, or could have become a political statement for women’s rights. Instead, Dreyer created a comedy in the Shakespearean sense, thus suggesting that not only this marriage, but marriage as an institution, can and should be saved.
Dreyer’s directorial style in Master of the House deserves particular attention, as he blends and builds upon the best aspect of two distinct approaches to the cinema. Danish cinema of the time was still heavily influenced by the theater: many films were shot in the “tableau” style, with the camera at a distance from the actors, and in relatively few long takes, creating an impression similar to that of viewing a play. From this approach, Dreyer borrowed the use of a small cast, an intense focus on relationships, and the restriction of action to a single interior locale (the Frandsen apartment).
At the same time, again, he draws on the techniques of cinematic continuity, as developed by D.W. Griffith and others, including frequent cuts (there are about 1,100 in Master of the House, more than in any other Danish film of the period), close-ups, and irising to direct the viewer’s attention. The result is that the viewer is drawn more closely into the confined space of the apartment where all the action in Master of the House takes place, and the performances of the actors take on a special intimacy.
Master of the House, a silent film, was originally released in two versions, one with English and one with Danish intertitles. However, the English intertitles somewhat altered the meaning of the story, so for this release, Criterion commissioned a new set of English intertitles, based on a translation by Signe Juul Hansen and Ina Bjerre Lrasen on the original Danish set. The soundtrack is a piano score played by Sara Davis Buechner, using music written by Gillian B. Anderson, based on a published set of music cues (including Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B minor, and “Légende” by Rudolf Friml) used in the original performance.
Sadly, no commentary track is provided for this release of Master of the House. However, there are three extras that not only add to the enjoyment of watching the film, but also provide a little film-school-in-a-box experience for the viewer. David Bordwell presents a 23-minute visual essay placing Dreyer’s style in Master of the House in the context both of broader film history, and of his other films. Bordwell makes a strong case that this film is not a domestic melodrama tossed off between more serious works, but an innovative work that used the available technology to create a film intensely focused on the emotional cohesiveness of its principal characters.
There’s also a 2014 interview with film historian Casper Tybjorg, who discusses the differences between Master of the House and the stage play it was based on (The Tyrant’s Fall by Sven Rindom), and how both were perceived when the film premiered in 1925. The third extra is a 20-page illustrated booklet with an essay by Mark Le Fanu and notes about the restoration process, score, and intertitles.