Master of the House: In the Corner

On Film / Essays — Apr 22, 2014

The Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer directed fourteen feature-length films in a career that stretched from 1919 to 1964. Nine of these belong to the silent period; the remaining five (starting with Vampyr in 1932) are talkies. Master of the House (1925)—better known in Denmark by its original title, Du skal ære din hustru (Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife)—is probably not as famous as such iconic Dreyer movies as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Day of Wrath (1943), or the sublime Ordet (1955). But it is now considered right up there with the best of his work—in other words, as an authentic silent masterpiece. Such a claim might seem at first glance curious, for the film is unpretentious, and almost willfully absent of that sense of mystical exaltation and respect for the numinous that is the special mark of the Dreyerian universe. We note, for example, that there is pretty much no mention of religion in it—no concern for this force. What the film does have, on the other hand, is Dreyer’s extraordinarily limpid psychological realism, something that was altogether new, modern, and distinctive in cinema at a time when most films still inscribed themselves within the conventions of melodrama.

This modernity in Master of the House can perhaps best be measured in comparison to a film in Dreyer’s oeuvre that preceded it by only a year—Michael (1924), adapted from a novel by Herman Bang and produced by Erich Pommer at Germany’s UFA studios. The movie tells the story of a painter’s obsession with a handsome young man, whom he takes into his house and confidence but who betrays him by running off with a rackety Russian princess. The milieu is 1890s aestheticism, with a heavily coded homosexual subtext. The sets, by Hugo Häring, are of an astonishing luxuriance, dramatically illuminated in the chiaroscuro of Karl Freund and Rudolph Maté’s expressionist camera work. Expressionist too is the acting, which is stylized, portentous, and wholly of the period—by which I mean (in this context) simply old-fashioned. Michael is an artistic feast in many ways, but even its most ardent admirers (of whom I count myself one) would be hard put to deny its artificiality.

The contrast with Master of the House couldn’t be more vivid, first of all on the visual level, but then, more subtly, in terms of spiritual temperament. For a start: the look of the film, in George Schnéevoigt’s evenhanded, neo­realist camera work, is resolutely nonexpressionist. The set—a single modern-day apartment, divided between living room, kitchen, and bedroom, with a bare landing outside—is meticulously imagined, yet clean and uncluttered in execution. The only attention it wants to draw to itself is the approbation of accuracy: that is what the typical lower-middle-class living quarters of the time (one unconsciously tells oneself) would have looked like. During the film’s opening sequence, as the housewife Ida Frandsen (Astrid Holm), aided by her daughter, Karen (Karin Nellemose), goes about her early-morning duties—drawing the blinds, feeding the songbirds, sorting the stove, preparing her husband’s breakfast tray—we find ourselves responding to a recognizably modern phenomenology: these are the sorts of gestures that govern our own daily lives; this is the sort of living space that most of us inhabit. Dreyer went to a huge effort to get the details right, installing gas and running water as he built the set, and filling the kitchen drawers (even those that wouldn’t be opened) with appropriate utensils.

Nor does it take us long to work out that there is a truly modern subject matter lurking behind the unexceptionable daily routine we have been introduced to. If we were to try to put this intuition into words, we might hazard that it’s about a crisis in masculine values—a crisis that arose out of the economic collapse that everywhere in Europe followed on from the First World War. The so-called master of the house (Ida’s husband, Viktor, brilliantly played by Johannes Meyer) was once a genuine patriarch, in the sense that he owned a small business enterprise and supported his family. But times are harsh, and he has been forced to sell up. We don’t know what he does all day (he may still have a minor job in the neighborhood or simply spend his time at the pub), but the overall result is an intense irritability—a “grumpiness”—that manifests itself in his insisting, at home, that the female members of his household be at his beck and call. His pompous sense of entitlement is punctured in due course by the machinations of the clever old family nanny, Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), and the film culminates, as all the best comedies do, with equilibrium restored and the womenfolk quietly vindicated.

Except is this a comedy? It is certainly humorous. People who don’t know Dreyer well are inclined to be skeptical about his talents in this direction. They don’t think humor is in his repertoire. They are wrong, I believe. Nonetheless, the easy solicitations associated with popular comedy are missing from this film. Crucially, there is nothing of the stereotype—nothing either broad or sentimental—in the way the characters are presented to us. Dreyer’s care in the casting ensures, as it always does, that each of the principals comes across as a fully rounded individual. Johannes Meyer, playing Viktor—handsome, elegant, pale-eyed—had appeared in Dreyer’s Love One Another (1922) and was one of Denmark’s best-known actors; he would go on to have over a hundred screen credits to his name. In Master of the House, Dreyer invites him to play a man whose domestic sternness certainly goes over the top—as when, for example, he forces his son to stand in the corner in his wet, freezing stockings—but it is good that Meyer does not overdo the part. On the whole, it is the accumulation of Viktor’s demands that makes him intolerable as a human being, rather than intrinsic psychotic sadism; and the actor puts this across with great subtlety. A petty tyrant, then, and redeemable, not some caricatured monster.

The performance of Astrid Holm, playing Ida, seems to me equally well judged. The actress’s one famous role prior to this film had been as the saintly Salvation Army sister Edit, dying of consumption in Victor Sjöström’s Swedish melodrama The Phantom Carriage (1921). She is saintly here too, of course—too saintly for some, no doubt—but the acting is in a completely different register, clearly governed by new protocols of cinematic naturalism rather than by the outworn conventions of early screen melodrama, which still mimicked those of the stage. (Even her illness, you could say, is a modern one: halfway through the film, she suffers a nervous breakdown and is sent away to recuperate—surely one of the first filmic depictions of this malady.)

Above all, however, it is Mathilde Nielsen, in the role of the nanny, who compels the viewer’s curiosity and admiration. Who was she? As Mads, she seems so totally to inhabit the part that a viewer who didn’t know otherwise might believe she was a real nanny, and that this was her only role, rather like the casting in some of the later Italian neorealist films. In fact, she was an altogether skilled and beloved char­acter actress. Born in 1858, she was sixty-seven years old at the time of Master of the House, and she wholly dominates the movie. In the early scenes, she seems to be merely an observer. As an ancient retainer who was Viktor’s live-in nurse when he was a child (but now resides outside the household), such a personage would of course have a degree of built-in authority, but plainly there would be limits, in terms of the social conventions of the time, as to how far this might extend. A certain shrewdness in the nanny’s glances tells us from the start that she takes everything in, and condemns it, but the film takes its time to let us know whether she will be able to do anything concrete to right the manifold injustice that reigns in the household—all the more so, indeed, in that the wife seems woefully complicit in the subjugation meted out by her husband.

Mads’s opportunity for action really comes only once Ida departs from the scene, and then the film is very subtle about how it measures out the exact meaning of her retribution. It is crucial, I think, in the second part of the film, that the viewer comes away with the impression that it is not mere vulgar revenge that is being taken here. The husband, of course, must be taught a lesson, but it must be done in the right way, or it will lose its value and piquancy. And thus it is a vital part of the film’s moral schema that the nanny continues to work (in fact, works harder than ever) while subjecting Viktor, in his wife’s absence, to a regimen of curative labor. The man’s slippers, henceforward, will not be warmed by the stove, and he will carry the washtub when ordered to.

All this is incredibly satisfactory. The film has a beautiful pace to it. You feel, for example, that the wife is away for just the right length of time for her cure to become plausible. (The one scene inside the sanatorium skillfully conveys the excruciating boredom of such places, as well as sets up the conditions for a joke about her taking a lover named Eriksen.) When she eventually comes back with her mother, one notices how exquisitely Dreyer draws out the suspense by postponing the initial confrontation with Viktor, which will finalize the terms of the new status quo. In a wonderfully underplayed sequence, Ida enjoys her husband’s perplexity by hiding in a cupboard in the kitchen, from which she looks down at him, unobserved, through the slats of a convenient air vent. (The fact that she can take part in a little game like this, in collusion with the nanny and the daughter, tells us all that we need to know about the true restoration of her spirits.) At the same time, Ida’s “nonappearance”—indeed disappearance—allows space for the extraordinary confrontation between Viktor and his aged mother-in-law, when we come to appreciate, at last, the depth of his remorse and the genuineness of his contrition.

That scene could be lingered on as an example of the mise-en-scène of silent film at its grandest. We are so used now to the power of the close-up that we take its methodology for granted. It is everywhere in cinema and television. But Dreyer—a pupil of D. W. Griffith’s in this matter (and a contemporary of Sergei Eisenstein’s, if we need to remind ourselves; Master of the House came out the same year as Battleship Potemkin)—was exquisitely attuned to the quotient of truth-value that is to be had by letting the whole of the actor’s face tell the story. Up until now, Viktor has been seen mainly in medium shot. But here in the presence of his mother-in-law (and not in the presence of his wife; this itself is a wonderful deflection—a wonderful piece of indirectness), we look into his eyes and come to appreciate for the first time his utter human frailty. In this marvelous short sequence, the habitual simplifications of genre comedy give way to an altogether more tender seriousness, as the mother-in-law—a secondary character in the film’s hierarchy—seems to deliver herself of a sublime act of poetic benediction.

Yet there is still a bit more to go. Though everything is understood, nothing has been spoken between Mads and Viktor—nothing irrevocable and definitive, that is. It is time for their final confrontation. And this, too, is a matter of the most wonderfully vivid mise-en-scène, complete with astonishing Eisensteinian close-ups. First there is the comic business of the hairpin and the tie, photographed in profile, as it were (the encounter that ends with Mads chucking Viktor’s chin). When, however, minutes later, the battle is truly joined, the axis changes ninety degrees, from profile to head-on. Armed with a length of stick, Mads looks straight to camera while delivering her definitive verdict: “You men are all alike.” (It is Viktor she is referring to, of course, but we males in the audience shift uneasily upon the sofa cushions.) “Foolish” (pause, close-up), “stubborn” (further pause and close-up), “vain” (final beat), and “conceited”!

At last it has been said—with unanswerable moral indignation. The effect is especially cathartic, I think, because so many of Mads’s previous close-ups have emphasized those aspects of her character that could be described as cunning and clandestine. At crucial moments in the film, we have seen her almost in the guise of a spy, hovering behind doorways, or else seated, unobserved, behind her knitting, and peering over her glasses with irony. The besting of Viktor is not the very last sequence in the movie (that will be reserved for its Shakespearean coda), but it embodies, with enormous power, what we all have been longing for: Viktor being placed in the corner.

Like almost all of Dreyer’s output, Master of the House was adapted from an existing theatrical work. The play from which it is taken, Tyrannens fald (The Tyrant’s Fall), was written by Svend Rindom and first produced in Copenhagen in 1919. Rindom (1884–1960) went on to write many screenplays, but he is largely forgotten these days outside specialist circles, whereas Dreyer’s fame as one of the greatest of all cineastes is as secure, perhaps, as these things ever can be. Dreyer’s adaptation necessarily simplifies and purifies Rindom’s text, following the director’s belief, as stated in a 1965 interview with Cahiers du cinéma, that “in a film studio, all that is needed is the very ordinary daily language and the completely natural gesture.” In theater, Dreyer said, “words fill the space; they hang in the air. You can hear them, feel them, experience their weight. But in the cinema, words are very quickly relegated to the background, which absorbs them. And that is why you should retain only what is absolutely necessary.”

“Retain only what is absolutely necessary.” Necessity is another word for lucidity, as lucidity opens up the doors for poetry. What Dreyer “took away” from Rindom’s play should be contrasted with what he added: his own unique and priceless way of looking at the world. Perhaps we may call this Dreyer’s “style,” with the understanding that, although this entity is easy to recognize, it is almost impossible to define. “The soul is shown through the style, which is the artist’s way of giving expression to his material,” Dreyer once wrote. “Style is not something that can be separated out from the finished work of art. It saturates and permeates it, and yet it is invisible and undemonstrable.”