It is one of film history’s injustices that the work of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) is not as firmly and conspicuously in the European canon alongside Bergman, Renoir, Godard and Rosselini, among others, where it doubtlessly belongs. He enjoys a reputation among the pastures of the cognoscenti, but Dreyer’s name does not have the same ring of recognisability as the aforementioned directors. This may explained by the irregularity of his output (he directed 13 features) and periods of unemployment. But credit is due to him. He is the artist who, after all, made The Passion of Joan Arc (1928), often ranked as one of ten best films ever made, one of the items in such lists that everyone seems to unquestionably agree with.
As the works of the director become more widely available on DVD, the situation may improve. The silent Master of the House is one four DVD titles by Dreyer that the British Film Institute is releasing this spring. It is accompanied by Ordet (1955), Day of Wrath (1943) and Gertrud (1964).
Dreyer started his career as a journalist and then swapped it for work at the Nordisk Film, where he worked as scriptwriter and editor. His directorial debut took place in 1919 with a film called The President, financed by Nordisk. Artistically ambitious from the start, he seized the opportunity to put into practice his cinematic vision characterised by attention to detail, contemplation, atmosphere and psychological realism. Dryer understood that cinema is a visual medium. He used text as support and kept the narrative as simple and straightforward as possible, in a fashion not dissimilar to the economical narratives of Ozu (although each one of them pursued different moods that were informed by their own cultures). Looking at his films is like looking at a natural landscape, rather still but full of life.
Master of the House, Dreyer’s first feature for Palladium pictures, bears some of those characteristics, which would later be honed in films like The Passion and Days of Wrath. Based on Svend Rindom’s stage play, it anticipates soap opera style domestic drama by decades, even on formal terms, as the acting is prematurely naturalistic in an age when silent films favoured expressionist exaggeration. It was a big success in France and led to Dreyer being invited to work there and the eventual commission of The Passion…, his first big budget movie.
In a way, Master of the House shares the theme of the Maid of Orleans with Dreyer stating in the first card title of the film that women who toil away at home without any recognition are true heroines. The first image shows us this typical old-world, Northern European household, with the young and beautiful Ida (Astrid Holm) manically going about her domestic chores while she looks after her two kids. Her husband, Victor (Johannes Meyer) is a failed businessman who turns his bitterness into patriarchal tyranny: always complaining about everything in the house and putting the scares on the children. His entrance in the film is a metaphor for male dominance: sullen and threatening, which sends women and children scurrying about the place, fearfully eager to please.
Ida is helped by Victor’s elderly nanny, Mads (the superb Mathilde Nielsen), who, fed up with the bad treatment that Victor is giving to his wife, sends the ailing wife back to her mother’s to be nursed back to health. This is when the film turns into comedy. Mad’s plan is to discipline Victor so that he can appreciate his wife again and stop taking things for granted. Having helped to bring him up, she knows that underneath his stern carapace is a mellow man and that there is a lot of love between him, Ida and the children. He just needs a re-education by good, old and witty Mads, who really is the star of this superbly constructed domestic tale. Nielsen’s Mads is the archetypal maid, with heavy-lidded eyes, a penetrating gaze that scrutinizes the world around her with moral certainty, but, of course, she is also a woman with a heart of gold and in the case of Mads, a very cheeky gene.
A feminine (rather than feminist) film, Master of the House is about the reconciliation of genders as well as an ode to female comradeship. Mads, Ida and her mother form a loving, supportive trio, a refreshing antithesis to cinema’s tradition of showing women being hostile and bitchty to each other. It is a light-hearted comment on the failings of the patriarchy and how men really are just little boys who need some discipline – the scene of the couple’s reunion at the end is a witty and sweet illustration of that.
The DVD contains two short films, a documentary he made in 1942 about the Mother’s Aid Institution and They Caught the Ferry, which was financed by the Road Safety Council and contains superb action sequences. Dreyer was involved in 13 state-commissioned documentaries and short films up to 1956, on subjects ranging from art and architecture to road-safety and these films leave it clear that even when dealing with most run-of-the-mill subjects in which he was not that interested, he could invest them with his directorial touch and unique cinematic translation of reality. But the most relevant extra is My Metier (Torben Skjødt Jensen, 1995, 94 mins), a documentary on Dreyer’s life and work, including rare archival footage, film clips, and interviews with key actors and associates, stills, scripts, newspaper clippings, letters and Dreyer’s own words. Beautifully put together, My Metier chronicles Dreyer’s life with the artistry that he deserves.
Master of the House and Ordet are out now. Days of Wrath and Gertrud will be released on 10 April 2006