Before he got up close and personal with Joan of Arc, the Danish cinema genius Carl Theodor Dreyer fashioned this finely detailed, ahead-of-its-time examination of domestic life. In this heartfelt story of a housewife who, with the help of a wily nanny, turns the tables on her tyrannical husband, Dreyer finds lightness and humor; it's a deft comedy of revenge that was an enormous box-office success and is considered an early example of feminism on-screen. Constructed with the director's customary meticulousness and stirring sense of justice, Master of the House is a jewel of silent cinema.
Carl Theodor Dreyer is surely best known for directing one of the greatest films ever made, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', and he should rightly be recognized for such a phenomenal cinematic achievement, creating a stunning and still influential piece of art that remains just as mind-blowingly beautiful today. For cinephiles, the acclaimed Danish filmmaker is also known for his work on the riveting drama 'Day of Wrath,' the majestic 'Ordet', and his triumph in the horror genre with cult favorite 'Vampyr.' Another of his well-regarded but unfortunately lesser remembered works is the winningly perceptive 'Master of the House,' in which Dreyer brings his sociopolitical realism to popular melodrama.
In its native language, the film's title (Du skal ære din hustru) roughly translates to 'Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife.' With that in mind alone, Dreyer's intent is fairly clear, and for a production from 1925, the script, which Dreyer co-wrote with Sven Rindhom, those intentions are amazingly progressive and light years ahead of their time. Simply put, an unappreciative husband, Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer), learns a difficult lesson in respecting his wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), and valuing her important contributions to the family. Today, this is a given and believed common sense, but for the period, the story was radical. During this first-wave of feminism, Dreyer and his team expanded on woman's suffrage into notions of women as equal partners in marriage, that their role in the household is no less important than the husband's.
The film opens deceptively simply as a modest day-in-the-life portrait of the Frandsen family, but quickly, we gather something curious about the hurried pace at which Ida and her daughter Karen (Karin Nellemose) prepare for the day. There is something puritanical and exacting while still hasty in their actions, as if the routine were well memorized despite showing much concern over the chores being performed precisely and to a specific order. The two women fix breakfast with assembly-like care, arrange the table to a particular procedure and place slippers at a fixed distance from the door. All the while, Viktor sleeps through the hubbub. But when he's finally ready to greet his family, he is grumpily demanding and severe, expecting some sort of royal treatment and accusing his doting, greatly undervalued wife of skimping on the butter for his toast.
The most interesting aspect of this opening is how Dreyer, who's also credited as editor, lulls his audience into a sense of normalcy, as if the scene were a daily, regular activity. Holm's facial expressions in reaction to Meyer's rough, degrading behavior towards her suggest that such mornings have become commonplace. At the same time, this particular day, and this is especially true when Dreng (Aage Hoffman) is punished in a fashion that later serves as the perfect form of poetic justice, is an unnerving and distressing portrayal of emotional abuse. We can only imagine what 1925 moviegoers experienced, but today, Meyer's Viktor is a contemptible fool who's easy to hate. However, in Dreyer's genius, he effectively has us pity this dislikeable louse as the narrative unfolds and Viktor learns his lesson.
The plot's comedic elements, and the eventual reasons for Viktor to finally realize his ugly, ungrateful behavior, come from the family's nanny Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), who also worked as Viktor's wetnurse when he was a child. She sets a carefully planned and clever course of attack, starting with Ida leaving so that her husband can realize just how much she did around the house. The story comes around pretty much as one would expect, but Dreyer funnily makes his audience wait for it, prolonging the obvious for as long as possible so that it feels earned and satisfying. When considering the film's U.S. title, 'Master of the House,' the ending hints at the irony because it's the women of the house who act as the glue keeping a family together and their share of the responsibility ultimately makes them the head of the household.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Carl Theodor Dreyer's 'Master of the House' comes to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #706). The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the distributor's standard clear keepcase with a DVD-9 copy sitting comfortably underneath. The package includes an 22-page booklet which features a detailed analysis from film critic and author Mark Le Fanu entitled "In the Corner." There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According to the accompanying booklet, the film was digitally restored and remastered at 2K resolution using a duplicate negative and other sources. Only, for some unknown reason, the producers have opted for an AVC MPEG-4 encode at a resolution of 1080i/60. For the most part, the results are excellent nonetheless with a few stunning moments, but sadly, only so much can be done with material that's nearly 90 years old. Not to dismiss or undervalue the time and tremendous effort put forth in restoring Dreyer's melodrama to its former glory, but the high-def transfer still comes with a visible amount of scratches, white specks and the occasional vertical line. Thankfully, it's nothing that detracts from the film's enjoyment. The biggest culprit is the several instances of softness and blurriness, which are easily excused as the result of the original photography and the condition of the source.
And yet, the overall picture quality is magnificent and far better than could have been expected from a film shy of a century old, showing clean, distinct lines in the costumes, hair and furniture. Close-ups are surprisingly revealing with fine textural details, exposing every wrinkle in the faces of actors. A few scenes appear a tad overexposed with mildly overblown whites, but all in all, contrast is well-balanced and mostly stable with crisp clarity of the smallest objects furnishing the Frandsen household. Black levels are inky rich and accurately rendered with excellent gradations between various shades, often affording the 1.33:1 image with impressive dimensionality and deep, penetrating shadows.
As explained in the booklet, this uncompressed PCM stereo soundtrack comes from a 2004 recording of a performance by Sara Davis Buechner. The score itself was done by composer Gillian B. Anderson and reconstructed from a list of musical cues published by the theater that premiered the film. Overall, the lossless mix is clean and detailed with plenty of warmth and an excellent sense of presence. The soundstage is wide and welcoming, and although each piano key is precise and distinct, dynamic range is not particularly impressive. Nevertheless, the high-rez track is very good and complements the visuals satisfyingly well.
Although better known for one of cinema's greatest masterpieces, Carl Theodor Dreyer is an accomplished and skilled filmmaker, and he demonstrates his mastery of the camera in 'Master of the House.' Bringing his style of sociopolitical realism to conventional melodrama, this silent film is a marvelous display of technique elevating formula to the avant-garde. The Blu-ray, courtesy of The Criterion Collection, arrives with terrific picture quality and a strong audio presentation. There's not much in the way of supplements, but the material is nonetheless insightful and worthwhile, making the overall package recommended for cinephiles.