As a self-confessed film buff, I have to admit that my knowledge is severely lacking when it comes to silent films. I’ve seen a couple of Charlie Chaplin movies, some Buster Keaton shorts, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Nosferatu. That’s about it. I’ve tried a few others like The Birth of a Nation and about half of Metropolis. The thing is, I generally find silent films difficult to watch. Like various kinds of great art, silent films take a certain amount of education and practice to appreciate. Decades of fast-paced, dialog-driven movies have led me to expect a certain kind of film experience, one that is completely contrary to how silent films are usually put together.
I’ve been meaning to change that, as I know that silent films are an important part of cinema history and extremely helpful in understanding how films went from a series of moving pictures to fully developed narrative art. I decided to watch Master of the House because it was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and his The Passion of Joan of Arc is not only one of the great films of the silent era but one of the best ever made, period. Dreyer’s use of close-ups on his actor’s faces; strange, angular set designs; and skewed camera angles created a brilliant emotional film that sticks with you years after you have seen it.
I was hoping for something similar with Master of the House. Unfortunately, what I got was nothing like that film but a rather slowly paced, dare I say boring, film with a pretty pedestrian plot. It is also brilliantly shot, meticulously crafted, and ultimately worthy of its classic status.
The plot is simplistic by definition. Ida (Astrid Holm) spends her days and nights taking care of her two children. She cooks, cleans, and runs the household while her tyrannical husband Viktor (Johannes Meyer) calls her lazy, berates her at every turn, and generally makes her life miserable. Viktor’s childhood wet-nurse Mads (Mathilde Nielsen) and his mother-in-law Alvilda (Clara Schonfeld) hatch a revenge plan to make Viktor see the error in his ways and become a loving husband and father.
It is meticulously shot and very slow to unfold. I hate using words like "boring" when discussing films like this, as it makes me sound like a dumb teenager ranting on IMDB, but it's a word that perfectly fits here. Dreyer is fascinated with the details of this family's life. The film begins in the wee morning hours and it shows Ida and her children going through their routine - preparing breakfast, fixing coffee, taking care of father’s shoes, etc. It is like an immaculate, moving still-life painting - interesting in a historical, craftsmanship sort of way, but not so much story-wise. There is a palpable fear that father is going to wake-up and things won’t be exactly perfect. He then does and it isn’t. He is loud and rude to everybody. When Mads visits, we see her frustration at seeing this child she helped raise being so intolerable.
The film is broken into two acts. The first sets up how horrible Viktor is to his family and hatches the plot to set him straight. The second involves the elder ladies putting their paln into action - sending Ida away and taking over the house which eventually involves Viktor changing his ways and reconciling with his wife. It all takes entirely too long to get there, and I have to admit I continued to look at my watch to figure out how much time was left untill it was all over.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. While the movie is very slow and rather difficult for me to watch, it is also very well crafted and directed by the hand of a master. Dreyer built a full apartment set for his film and designed it so that these small rooms become characters in their own right. Indeed, the beginning of the film comes in wide shots showing us the flat from every angle, allowing us to take in every room, every wall, every piece of furniture. By the time the film is over, a little bit of drama has happened in ever corner of every room. Most chamber pieces at the time were filmed with static shots where the camera was set on one end of the room and the actors moved to and fro, giving the scenes some action. Dryer constantly moves his camera from corner to corner, providing a variety of angles of which to see the scene from.
There are some 1,100 edits made in the film, allowing us to see the action from different perspectives. Where static shots make us spectators in someone else’s drama, Dreyer’s creative use of camera set-ups and edits puts us directly into the home as participants. As the film moves on, the wide shots are slowly brought closer in to medium and close-ups. This makes the scenes more intimate and emotional.
While ultimately the film is a bit of a chore to get through, it is well worth watching for the technical aspects and the historical artistry. I can’t say Master of the House has made me want to keep watching silent films, but it has definitely taught me more about the history of cinema.
The film comes in Criterion's now normal dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release, but also a cheaper DVD-only version. This review is of the latter. The video looks very good. Released in 1925, there is a bit of graininess and that flicker effect you get in films from this era remains, but considering its nearly 90-year-old heritage, it looks rather magnificent. For the audio, Criterion has created a new solo piano score from composer Gillian B. Anderson, using cues reconstructed from the original premiere. It sounds nice without overwhelming the drama.
The extras are fairly sparse for a Criterion release. There is a 15-minute interview with Danish film historian Casper Tyjerg, who discusses the movie within the context of Dreyer’s career and other films from the time period. David Bordwell narrates a Visual Essay discussing the various innovations Dreyer used in the film with clips playing as a visual guide. Lastly, there is a 24 page booklet with an essay from historian Mark Le Fanu and details on the restoration.
Master of the House will likely be a difficult film for modern audiences to enjoy, but for film buffs and those interested in movie history it is essential. Criterion has presented the film in what will likely be the best-looking version we’ll ever get. Though their extras are few, they go a long way into helping us understand the film’s innovations and place in film history.