Monday, April 13, 2015

Master Of The House

MASTER OF THE HOUSE (Dreyer, 1925)
Criterion Collection, Bu-ray, Release Date April 22, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer) is the kind of guy you hate on first sight. He wears a permanent sneer just begging to be smacked off his face and holds his posture so rigidly he's either expressing his total contempt for everyone else in the room or he's severely constipated.

Familiarity doesn't render Viktor any more likeable. In the first scene, he sleeps in late while his harried wife Ida (Astrid Holm) works herself into an early state of exhaustion preparing breakfast and tending to the children. Within a few minutes after finally deigning to wake up, he bellows (this is a silent film, but the intertitles read loud) to Ida for his slippers, upbraids her for not having his morning coffee already on the table, and demands that she brush off his jacket because that's just not the sort of thing that constipated guys do for themselves. Once he finally leaves for work we watch Ida bustle about all day long, just barely keeping this pre-appliance household together with equal parts ingenuity and perspiration. And what's her reward? Sneery McScrewyouall stomps back in the door after work and dismisses all of her efforts with a fine “Really! What do you do all day?”

Oh yes, you're going to hate Viktor Frandsen. Boo, hiss, and boo again, sir! But just when you think Viktor can't possibly have a single redeeming feature, writer-director Carl Theodor Dreyer steers “Master of the House” (1925) in a surprising direction.

The English titles (created by Criterion for this release) that open this version of the film proclaim housewives as the true heroes of modern life, but the movie is really a testament to the strength and solidarity of all women steadfastly resisting the patriarchy. Ida's suffering does not go unnoticed, and pretty soon the family's elderly nanny Mads (more on her in a moment) and Ida's mother conduct an intervention in which they inform Ida that she must kick her no good husband to the curb tout suite.

These wise women have learned a thing or two about men and the film has provided us no reason to doubt their judgment, but Ida offers an unexpectedly stirring defense of her brute of a husband. Viktor lost his business and has since become anxious and bitter; she was with him during the good years and it would be selfish to leave during the bad. These are the words of the classic true-hearted silent screen heroine whose unshakeable faith wins the day, but they are also convincing.

Still, something must be done about Viktor and at this point it's relevant to point that “Master of the House” is billed as a comedy. This tale of a tyrannical, abusive husband hasn't exactly been a barrel of laughs to this point, but things change once Mads (Mathilde Nielsen) takes charge of the household. Convincing Ida to leave home for a while, the feisty nanny (who also tended to Viktor as a child) begins a lengthy rehabilitation project with the goal of breaking Viktor down and building him back up again.

Viktor stands in the corner like a bad little boy

As marvelous as Astrid Holm's restrained, naturalistic performance is, it's Nielsen who steals the show. Her Mads doesn't take guff for a second., and she literally slaps Viktor around to assure that he complies with the new program. Men are the masters? Oh please, let's see how long Viktor lasts trying to do a housewife's work: fold that sheet, change that diaper, get your own damn slippers. Sleeping alone is no fun either. Dreyer doesn't settle for the melodramatic (or even Bressonian) convenience of an instant transformation. Repentance is only the first step for Viktor; he's got to put in the daily labor required to achieve genuine empathy.

Dreyer pays even more meticulous attention to the domestic space than he does to Viktor's redemption. Unlike most sets of the era, the apartment was not constructed as a stage but rather a space fully enclosed with four (moveable for the camera) walls. We get to know every inch of the apartment from the stove to the table to the bedposts and, through that, the people who inhabit it. I don't know of any cinematic living space that would be explored so completely until fifty years later when we spied on Jeanne Dielman at 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

The subject matter may seem more mundane than the great Danish director's better known films like “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) or “Day of Wrath” (1943), but Dreyer takes his heroines and his “hero” (the intertitles even place that word in quotes) every bit as seriously. The acting is both varied (Meyer and Nielsen more grandiose, Holm so quiet and confident) and superb, and the setting tangible. Dreyer had a heck of a knack for emotionally potent endings, and he delivers in profoundly satisfying fashion here as well.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

From the Criterion booklet: “For this new restoration, undertaken by Palladium, a digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Spirit 2 DataCine from a duplicate negative and other source materials at Digital Film Lab in Copenhagen. The film was also restored at Digital Film Lab, where 3,200 hours were spent removing dust, blotches, and scratches using the DaVinci Revival and Phoenix restoraton systems. Fifty hours were spent dedicated to image stabilization, where a Flame workstation was used to remove jumps caused by splices. The film's original flicker, the result of barying image exposure from the hand-cranked film camera, has been preserved.”

I don't usually quote that much, but that should give you a sense of how much labor went into the restoration of this nearly ninety-year-old film. You will still see some small scratches and other instances of damage, and a few scenes are less sharp than others. But the overall transfer is quite beautiful with rich B&W contrast and a thick grainy look that pleases the eye. Image detail is strong enough that we can appreciate not just the actors' faces, but the set decoration in the apartment that hosts almost every scene. This is a 1080i(nterlaced) transfer rather than Criterion's usual 1080p, but it doesn't pose any problems.

Short version: This movie looks far better than I ever imagined I would see it.

This is a dual-format release which means a DVD and a Blu-ray have been included. I only looked briefly at the DVD transfer and it is noticeably weaker as far as image sharpness goes, but is otherwise solid and is, of course, sourced from the same restoration.

The LPCM 2.0 track does a fine job presenting the score composed by Gillian B. Anderson in 2000 from the cue sheets published by the Palads Teatret in Copenhagen that debuted the movie on Oct 5, 1925. The Anderson score was performed on piano by Sara Davis Buechner in 2004, and has been remastered for this release. The lossless audio crisply captures this modest but effective score.

Title cards in this silent film are all in English. To the Criterion booklet once more: “When 'Master of the House' was originally released, Palladium distributed two versions: one with Danish intertitles and the other with English ones. For this edition, Criterion returned to the original Danish version to create a new set of English intertitles.”

Criterion has only included two extras, but both are interesting.

First is a new interview with Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg (15 min.) He discusses the play (Svend Rindom's “Tyrannes fald”) on which the film was based and some of the elements Dreyer changed for the film, including some scenes that were shot but cut out.

Second is a visual essay (23 min.) written and narrated by scholar David Bordwell. Bordwell is just about the best in the business at analyzing how a film or a scene is composed, and he makes a very convincing case that this deceptively simple movie is more aesthetically sophisticated than it appears on first blush. He also adds some interesting information about the production. Dreyer insisted that the apartment set have functioning gas and water, no doubt a precursor to his construction of the massive set for “Passion of Joan of Arc.”

The 20-page insert booklet includes an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Film Value:
“The Master of the House” isn't exactly a forgotten film, but it hasn't received as much press as Dreyer's most ballyhooed masterpieces. As far as I know this is its first North American DVD or Blu-ray release, and I expect this will be a great opportunity for many viewers to evaluate this as yet another great accomplishment by a great filmmaker.

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