October 19, 2020
Master of the House – 1925, Denmark
Just before he turned his attention to the tragic tale of Joan of Arc and produced what is universally considered a masterpiece, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer focused his lens on the plight of Ida Frandsen (Astrid Holm), an exhausted, yet resolute housewife married to a louse named Viktor (Johannes Meyer). The film was Master of the House, and the result was unforgettable. Ida is the kind of woman who rises at the crack of dawn to ensure that everything is prepared for her husband – his shoes polished, his jacket cleared of lint, his breakfast hot and on the table. Viktor, sadly, is the kind of man who wakes up when he has to and whose first words to the person slaving away for him are where are my slippers. For more than twenty minutes, Dreyer allows us to observe what has become their morning routine – the wife and her eldest daughter dutifully laboring, her pampered husband showering them with complaints and criticisms. He can’t even be bothered to say good morning. I’d say it were an extreme example of marital dysfunction, yet I have a feeling that it reflects the reality of far too many couples.
Their evening isn’t much better. After pushing his son and making his youngest daughter cry, the brute won’t move a muscle, not even to remove a boiling teapot, this despite having seen his wife slightly slumped over, her eyes fighting a losing battle not to close. His rejection of an apple, which she warmed up especially for him, is the final straw, and a single tear streams down her pale cheek. She is consoled by her mother (Clara Schenfeld) and her husband’s former nanny, Miss Madsen (memorably played by Mathilde Nielson). Their message, delivered by Ida’s mother, is a simple one: “You must leave him, or you’ll be entirely undone.” And so she does. Her husband returns to find no wife, three children to look after, and a household placed in the care of Miss Madsen, who’s intention is to be “hard, but not evil.”
Not having grown up in the care of a nanny at a time when people held much more traditional views on discipline than they do today, I have no idea what it would be like to be a grown man suddenly thrust back in the care of such a person, and it is such a ludicrous notion that what follows cannot help but break the dramatic tension of the first part of the film. Wisely, Dreyer portrays this change in stages that are surprisingly realistic. There’s Viktor’s predictably irrational reaction to his wife’s absence and then the gradual wearing down of Viktor’s resolve, as Miss Madsen’s fierce and unflinching personality erodes Victor’s stubbornness and sexism. With the change comes comedy, though its source is rarely gained through over-the-top reactions or physical slapstick. Instead, it comes more naturally, from the sight of the once proud and hostile Viktor humbling himself by hanging up laundry and shining his own shoes. He even learns to love his wife’s birds, which he had previously accused his wife of favoring over him. The changes elicit smiles from Viktor’s children and well-earned chuckles from the audience.
Its finale is nothing short of a comic masterpiece, full of people in hiding, characters putting on an act, and a man’s realization that he is still in love with his wife and that he loves her for more than just her cooking and cleaning. It is the kind of finale that recalls the best works of Shakespeare and writers of Greek comedies like Euripides, yet Dreyer has an advantage over them. The camera allows him to depict Viktor as a man so beaten down by life that his facial expression only reflects frustration and impatience. And then at just the right moment, the camera moves in. We see Ida’s arms warmly wrap around the back of Viktor’s neck, and then we see it, his first smile. It is one of those magical moments that will forever be imbedded in my mind.
Dreyer would go on to direct a series of dramatic masterpieces, and I suspect that that has caused him to be thought as a master of drama. Master of the House is a reminder of his versatility and, more generally, of the dangers of pigeonholing directors based on their most famous works. Dreyer was indeed the real thing. He made fourteen films in total; I’ve seen seven of them. In other words, there’s more to discover. Lucky me. (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection)
*Master of the House is a silent film.