#7 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.
It’s been wonderful to discover Dreyer’s comedies. He only made three, but each is amusing and touching in their own way. Master of the House, his last comedy, is the story of a man who learns that he has become a tyrant in his own home, degrading his wife and children every day no matter what they do. It seems like a setup for a simplistic story, but Dreyer’s cinematic adaptation of the play by Svend Rindom draws the characters so well that despite some late stage generalized moralizing manages to stick the ending with a surprising amount of pathos.
Viktor (Johannes Meyer) is the patriarch of a family of five including his wife Ida (Astrid Holm), and their three children, most particularly their eldest daughter Karen (Karin Nellemose). Ever since Viktor had lost his shop some months before, he’s turned bitter and angry at home, severely criticizing his wife for every little thing wrong he sees, barking at the children as they play around him, and pointing out every infraction against his sense of home he sees. The film starts with Ida getting the entire household ready for the day as Viktor sleeps in. It’s an extended sequence that’s really made by the small moments of comedy that populate it. The little ways that Ida predicts all of Viktor’s needs and desires like his warm slippers or the butter on his toast, all while managing a young boy who needs to practice his times tables and a young woman who needs to help all around.
None of it is any good, though. Viktor awakens and feels like nothing is right, often barking contradictory orders to the point where Ida gives him all of the butter from her own bread without him realizing it just to make him happy. The final round of thoughtless cruelty is witnessed by his nanny from his youth, Mads. Played with wit and stern cunning by Mathilde Nielsen, she recalls Hildur Carlberg’s performance in The Parson’s Widow. As she sees Ida nearing the end of her rope, Ida knows exactly what will turn the house around, and it’s treating Viktor like the misbehaving little boy he is. Together with Ida’s mother, Mads convinces Ida to retreat from the house, leaving Mads there in her place.
Confronted with life without his wife, Viktor has no choice but to power through the situation after Ida’s doctor tells him outright that he cannot see Ida until she recovers, having completely broken down separated from the routine of her daily life. So begins the morphing of the film from a light and predictable comedy to a story with real emotional weight. It’s here, in this middle section, that we begin to learn the reasons for Viktor’s frustrations as well as his lack of realization that he had been subjecting his family to them. It’s also here that we see how much more Ida has sacrificed for the family in an attempt to keep Viktor in the kind of life he had come to expect to lead. It’s a humbling experience, directed by Mads.
Mads throws Viktor’s life into chaos by treating his home like she would her own as she begins to run it. Instead of the politely spare main room to the two room apartment, she hangs up the washing to dry where Viktor must duck underneath to pass through. He begins to take part in the household chores including taking out the ashes from the wood oven and feeding the canaries by the window. Overall he becomes a happier man, and he begins to long for his wife’s presence despite Mads and Ida’s handlers conspiring together to keep the two from contacting each other.
When Viktor reaches the predictable conclusion of a man filled with renewed love and dedication to the woman he had originally wooed as a princess but ended up treating like a maid it’s the performances that really carry the day. Dreyer had started his directing career by essentially letting the actors do whatever they wanted, allowing for occasionally wildly disparate types of performances within single scenes. As time had gone on, and definitely by Der var engang, there was a subtle realism dominating his actors’ performances, and this more subtle approach really ends up having an effect, especially here. Meyer doesn’t treat his final transformation like he’s in a play making sure the crowd in the rafters can figure out that he’s a new man. Instead he plays it smaller, with more intricate facial cues to do the same thing, and in film that tends to carry a lot more weight. His look as he sees Ida again for the first time in over a month, having walked that time in her shoes at the guiding hand of his old nanny, is a wonderful moment. It gets a little undermined a bit earlier when he makes a grand declaration about how all men are stupid and don’t appreciate their wives, pushing the focus away from the story at hand and moving it explicitly into social commentary that doesn’t really fit, but not enough to undo it all.
I will say that of all the silent films Dreyer made, this is the most obvious one that would have benefited from being a sound picture. There are a lot of intertitles that are just simply dialogue back and forth. Being adapted from a play, this makes sense, but I do wonder if this might have played better, especially early in the film, as a talkie.
Still, this is a delightful and warm comedy. It’s appealing and focused with a lot of heart and some very nice performances.