A departure from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s general reputation as a director of severe, forbidding, and deeply spiritual films, Master of the House reflects the gentle humor, humanism, and innate social conscience that is often overlooked in the cursory assessment of Dreyer’s stylistically identifiable and accomplished body of work. In Master of the House, Ida Frandsen (Astrid Holm) is the definition of the archetypal Dreyer heroine: practical, self-sacrificing, conciliator, nurturer, and possessing deep personal conviction. Ida is the overworked and browbeaten wife of Viktor (Johannes Meyer), a financially struggling businessman whose attempts to suppress his own deep seated feelings of uncertainty and failure have resulted in unnecessarily cruel and self-indulgent behavior within the household: the coffee is never served on time, there is not enough butter on his bread, the children are unmanaged, and his shoes are in a state of disrepair (nor is there enough money saved to retrieve his other shoes from the cobbler). Viktor’s former nurse and longtime family friend, Miss Madsen (Mathilde Nielsen), affectionately called “Mads” by the children, observes his tyrannical insensitivity with visible disapproval, but is sworn to passive acceptance and neutrality by the devoted Ida, rationalizing that his severity is a temporary aberration to the gentleness of his true soul. Despite Ida’s expressed reluctance to defy the overbearing Viktor, Mads enlists the assistance of Ida’s mother (Clara Schønfeld) and devises an underhanded plan to take Ida away from the responsibilities of the household and rehabilitate the self-indulgent Viktor in an attempt to restore domestic harmony.
Master of the House is a spare, compassionate, and astute social satire on domesticity, gender roles, and subservience. Using parallel imagery that further reflects a distinctive aspect of Dreyer’s art, the film underscores the characters’ profound transformation towards empathy, self-reliance, and equality: the resigned and methodical performance of chores; Viktor’s contrasted behavior towards Ida’s pet birds; the repeated ritual of parent and child folding a blanket. Dreyer further uses episodic recurrences to inferentially develop the plot while retaining the visual economy of the film. Using kammerspielfilm techniques such as spare and unobtrusive use of intertitles, compressed chronology of events, and confined one-room staging of the scenes, Dreyer effectively distills the narrative to its essential form of expression, transcending the inarticulate bounds of conventional dialogue to create a synthesis of implicit and universally accessible cinematic language of images and emotions.
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