Iconic Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer is probably best known for two works: 1928's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and 1932's "Vampyr." "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is considered to be "The Battleship Potemkin" of silent film biopics, while "Vampyr" is a moody little tale of strange happenings in a village near Paris.
But before these two cinematic landmarks were projected onto silver screens worldwide, came a domestic drama from 1925 entitled "Master of the House." The film, a Dreyer's eye view of working class Danish life, had fallen into relative obscurity and decay until Criterion and other film preservationist groups decided to rescue this worthwhile film.
Thousands of hours were spent in the various restoration processes of "Master of the House" and the results are truly amazing. The picture and sound are beautifully sharp and clear, and the new, easy to read English subtitles were taken directly from the Danish subtitles. All this work by so many dedicated people makes this film not only a must see, but a great addition to film collections.
The music used in "Master of the House" is the actual score composed for the film's original 1925 release and was brilliantly reconstructed by composer Gillian B. Anderson in 2000 and beautifully performed by pianist Sara Davis Buechner in 2004.
"Master of the House" centers on the story of a once proud middle class Danish family suddenly plunged into near poverty due to husband Viktor's business going bankrupt. He is then forced to work for others at low wages, and places his shame and frustration squarely on the shoulders of his long-suffering wife Ida and their four children.
Viktor is a bully and a tyrant in his own home. He treats his caring and hard-working wife like a slave and is cruel and indifferent to his children. There is a smoldering anger that is always just below Viktor's stoic surface, and he constantly looks for the slightest provocation from others to set him off.
While Viktor doesn't resort to physical violence, although he often comes close, he does resort to browbeating and belittling to assert his authoritarian view that he alone is "master of the house." Viktor's real "castle" is nothing more than a small, shabby walk-up apartment with laundry hanging around to dry. The family's meager meals consist of thinly-sliced bread with scant butter, wafer-thin slices of sausage, and porridge.
Ida works night and day to keep the family together and is bone tired, yet Viktor accuses her of doing nothing all day while he is at work. The children observe the abuse of their mother and both fear and hate their father.
Then enters "Mads," the steely-spined, old nanny with a heart of gold who works for the family at no charge as a favor to Ida. Mads had been the nanny of Viktor when he was a child and knows how cruel and unforgiving he was then. She did her best to teach him right from wrong, but was not always successful.
When Mads comes around twice a week, she sits on the sidelines darning socks and watching Viktor lord over his family. One day when Viktor's temper creates a crisis in the house and hurts Ida's feelings, Mads has had enough.
She gets in Viktor's face and shouts, "You may be too big to spank, but you're not too big for me to box your ears." With that she slaps Viktor's face in front of the whole family.
Viktor flies into a rage and bellows for Ida to "get rid of that old woman" or he'll sue for divorce. He tells Ida that Mads had better be gone by the time he gets back from the pub or else.
The family is left in shock, not quite knowing what to do. Mads gets herself together and tells Ida to pack her bags and to go into hiding at Ida's mother's house. Mads' plan is to take care of the children, the household, and Viktor when he returns, whether he likes it or not. Mads assures Ida that she will be the determining factor to tell if Viktor is capable of seeing the error of his ways, and if that doesn't happen, Ida will not return.
I won't spoil the rest of the film by telling too much, but I will say that Criterion's "Master of the House" is an enjoyable drama with a few humorous touches, and a Carl Theodor Dreyer film well worth viewing.