David Reviews Carl Th. Dreyer’s Master of the House [Dual Format Review]

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In the wake of Criterion’s recent releases of a film from Denmark (Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves) and a bit further back, The Freshman, a silent movie starring Harold Lloyd, I suppose that one could make the case that this week’s unveiling of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1925 silent feature Master of the House represents some kind of fortuitous middle ground among their slate of Spring 2014 titles. And yet, there is plenty to distinguish this film from all those that surround it on the new release calendar of the past few months. We’ve known for awhile that this early breakthrough film of Dreyer’s, quite surprisingly, marks the great director’s first North American title issued in the Blu-ray format. I’m sure that this is in large part simply due to scheduling and marketing strategies, as well as the fact that it’s the last major entry into Dreyer’s rather limited canon to earn a Criterion spine number. But I’d by lying if I said that this particular movie is the most deserving of such an honor, if placed alongside his later films, all of which tower over Master of the House in terms of quality, historic legacy, rewatchability and the sheer power of his cinematic accomplishments.

And yet, I won’t complain, because for anyone who’s been intrigued by the profound sublimity of Dreyer’s mature works, and is looking for further insight into his artistic development, this is a very valuable addition to the catalog. I’ll liken it to the Early Bergman set that I recently discussed with Trevor Berrett in our most recent episodes of The Eclipse Viewer – best viewed by those who already have cultivated an appreciation for the director’s style rather than as an introduction to one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. As a relatively straightforward, sentimental and fairly predictable story of domestic strife and eventual reconciliation, Master of the House shares with its more celebrated successors a certain quality of “less is more,” where a casual first impression viewing may lead some to wonder exactly what all the fuss is about. That is, until the plaintive, stripped down approach that is Dreyer’s forte stakes its claim on our consciousness and sets the cognitive gears in motion, drawing us back either in memory and imagination or for a quick repeat viewing to take it all in again and delve deeper into his subtly crafted worlds. But this early work, as significant as it may be in his overall development, still lacks the visceral emotive power of a performance along the lines of Falconetti’s in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Nor does it approach the eerie blend of tormented theology and haunting existential anguish that we find in Vampyr, Day of Wrath and Ordet. The closest parallel among Dreyer’s acknowledged masterpieces is his final film, Gertrud. Both of them fit into the genre of “domestic chamber dramas,”  each offering a more contemplative, sustained focus on the sufferings of a stalwart and virtuous female protagonist, though forty years of cultural transitions and the refinement of Dreyer’s auteurist sensibility separate the two, leading to some wide divergence in technique and perspective, as should be expected.

The plot and setting of Master of the House are anchored in the domecile of a decent but mildly impoverished couple who are struggling through a period of hardship brought about largely due to the husband Viktor’s lack of employment. The first third of the film, roughly thirty-five minutes or so, is devoted to exposition of Viktor’s unyielding tyranny toward his meek but determined wife Ida and their three children – an adolescent daughter, a son around 9 or 10 years old and their infant daughter. His petty demands concerning how his breakfast is served, the cleanliness and upkeep of their modest two room apartment and the subservience he considers to be his due make him rather unlikable from the very outset, and we only grow to detest him further as this immature, entitled would-be master quickly wears out his welcome in our own house. Still, it’s significant to note that his behavior never degenerates into the kind of raw verbal or physical abuse that a film made in more recent decades might portray in order to get its point across more emphatically (or manipulatively.) Sure, he barks at his wife and kids and even shoves his son to the floor at one point with a flurry of angry condemnation on the side, but Viktor always remains cooly, cruelly in control, dressed in his suit and tie, a slight tousling of the hair and furrowing of the brow the only indicator that he’s feeling taxed by all the anger he needs to manage. But that very restraint on Dreyer’s part (which is also probably attributable to many other differences between that era and our own) makes the characterization more compelling. Furthermore, Dreyer’s deft naturalism and psychological subtlety, the lack of anything resembling the kind of histrionic pantomime that often comes to mind when we think of 1920s cinematic melodrama, makes the conflict and resolution more powerfully resonant to modern fathers who might find this film a somewhat disturbing expose of the archaic patriarchal attitudes that we unconsciously allow ourselves to lapse into in our own family lives.

Business failures and the difficulty of finding a new opportunity are presented as a rationale for Viktor’s harsh, domineering demeanor in setting the expectations for how his household is managed, but Master of the House isn’t a film that foreshadows the neorealist approach, where larger social maladies are given a human face by particularizing them in a family’s struggles. Instead, the situation we observe speaks primarily to the responsibility of individuals to respect and empathize with those around them, especially the ones we claim to love and care most deeply about. As we first become familiar with the interpersonal dynamics of Viktor and Ida’s marriage and family life, it’s quickly apparent that left to themselves, they’re hopelessly stuck in a downward spiral of surly recriminations on his part and too-passive martyrdom on hers. Ida is patient and resilient, but too beaten down by the responsibilities thrust upon her to push back in any way that will meaningfully alter her sad status quo. In order to effect change, the couple needs the mediation of a pair of older women: Ida’s mother, who enables the ruse of giving her daughter a place to recuperate from the stress she’s been living under in order to help Viktor appreciate what he’s taken too much for granted, and most significantly the old nanny Mads, who helped raise Viktor when he was just a boy and uses that intimate knowledge of his youth to get around his defensive barricade of male privilege. The actress Mathilde Nielsen, already nearing 70 when she portrayed Mads, continued acting for almost the next two decades. She must have been a shoo-in for spunky old lady roles over the course of those years. Her performance here stands out as the most memorable among the cast, with her rich repertoire of withering glares and feisty rebukes as she thrusts and parries with Viktor in a battle of wills that veers between poignant humorous jabs and stern, well-deserved mockery and rebuke as the situation calls for.

For those who have watched Master of the House on Hulu Plus or versions of the film available on YouTube or elsewhere, there are enough differences in both image quality and the intertitle translations to warrant taking  a fresh look at Criterion’s new dual-format edition. The visual improvements are found mainly in the amount of clean-up work that’s been done to eliminate most of the visible damage found in prints close to 90 years old. However, this is hardly a luminous classic of the silver screen. Most of the action takes place in a rather quotidian two-room set that’s appointed quite realistically to replicate an ordinary working class apartment, and many of the shots have almost a key-hole effect, with the main image (usually a character’s face and upper torso) bathed in light, surrounded by a circular black frame, taking very little advantage of today’s widescreen home viewing monitors. Likewise, the solo piano accompaniment track, while pleasant enough, offers little that requires a state of the art sound system. Indeed, I kind of prefer watching the film in strict silence; it makes the experience more like what I’m accustomed to when watching other Dreyer films – long stretches of brooding contemplative silence that lend gravity to the experience. Seeing this result, I have a better understanding as to why Criterion made a DVD-only version available to more budget-conscious consumers, many of whom will see no discernible improvement from watching the film in HD.

More importantly in my opinion, the Criterion disc edition features a fresh translation of the screenplay written by Dreyer and his collaborator, the playwright Svend Rindom from whose original theatrical script this film was adapted. The streaming version on Hulu uses the same text that was used in the film’s earlier English language releases. In that translation, the names of the couple are changed from Viktor and Ida to the inexplicably bland and generic John and Mary. Worse yet, some of the original script’s vernacular touches of dialogue and narration that help a contemporary viewer bridge the gaps of time and culture between then and now are watered down and made rather obtuse in the older version. Presumably the interpreters underestimated the Anglo viewers’ capacity to think on their feet, or they just wanted to fit the conversation into a more conventional mode. While the main story line comes through clearly enough in the streaming version, I found the narrative much livelier, the comedic aspects of the film more vividly conveyed, through the fresh translation. It also seemed like the text lingered longer on the screen when I watched it on Hulu, reducing the overall image content since both versions have identical running times. My recommendation for non-completist viewers still unsure as to whether this film warrants a purchase is to give Master of the House a test run via one of the online versions to see how compelled they are to watch the whole thing. A sample of fifteen or twenty minutes ought to be sufficient to help make that decision.

But anyone who’s come under Dreyer’s spell and wants to deepen their knowledge of his aesthetic and directorial roots ought to waste little time in getting a copy of this disc, in either format. The two short supplements included here provide useful context of Dreyer’s early career and also guide us to better perceive the fine innovative details and hints of greatness to come that might otherwise slip past us if we enter into the film expecting visions as majestic and sublime as what we discovered in his later efforts.

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