It’s telling that the Criterion Collection touts Master of the House as a comedy. So regularly austere are the more popularly known works of Danish great Carl Theodor Dreyer, that perhaps in comparison, yes, this is at times funny. As a standard comedy, it’s admittedly weak; as a drama, however, it’s largely effective. Historian Casper Tybjerg, in an interview included on the new Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, makes a (only slightly convincing) case for the film as “basically” a comedy, noting that it was even made at a studio identified with comedic films. But more accurate is David Bordwell’s description of the film, which he mentions in a visual essay also included. In its employment of “silent film conventions of domestic drama,” it forms something more akin to a chamber play, so prevalent in the silent cinema. What sets this apart from some of these other films is Dreyer’s notable attention to detail. As Tybjerg does quite rightly state, Master of the House is very much “a film about the importance of little things.”
What a morning. The sad part is this is routine. Ida is in a near constant state of fear and anxiety due to the cruelty and irrational expectations of her husband. He’s never content with all that she does for him, yet he even chides her for getting up and working: “Must you run around all the time?” To keep up with his demands and the demands of the house, she must. The family is not well off either; we gather as much by holes in shoes and minimal food options, but we’re told outright later that Viktor is, in fact, unemployed.
Dreyer certainly makes his point in these early scenes, and if the film has any major faults, it’s in the redundancy of variations on Viktor’s harshness. By the 30-minute mark, it’s clear to the point of being tedious: this is no lovable grouch à la W.C. Fields or even Archie Bunker — Viktor is simply a bastard.
Everything in Master of the House is very well photographed, not unusual for Dreyer, with exquisite close-ups and camera maneuvers that are most striking due to their infrequency. As would be evinced in his greatest work, there’s also a particular devotion to composition. Essentially taking place in one location, it’s notable how Dreyer manages to prevent the film from ever feeling cramped. Movable studio walls helped open up the interiors, but more than that, ingenious alterations in camera placement and distance keep the rooms and the action (for lack of a better word) freshly depicted. Dreyer’s skill at filming interior space is expertly analyzed in the Bordwell essay, where he also comments on the nuanced performances of the film. This might be the most unheralded aspect of the movie. There’s little emotionally explosive drama, so it’s easy to overlook the subtlety of the actors’ expression and movement, but fortunately, Dreyer’s direction makes sure such features are paid their due attention.
Not of the caliber of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s finest achievements (Bordwell, Le Fanu, and Tybjerg argue otherwise), all of which are also available from Criterion, Master of the House is nonetheless a vital release, if nothing else because it marks the first American home video version of the film, and anything to boost the availability of the Dreyer canon is a surely a good thing.
— Jeremy Carr