BFI Dreyer & Master of the House

Master of the House (1925)

The British Film Institute has Dreyer fever these days, having just released David Rudkin’s study of Vampyr (1932) for their Film Classics book series and several region 2 DVDs, beginning this week with Master of the House and Ordet (1955).

No complaints here, as I’m solidly within the ranks of cinephiles who place Dreyer in the upper echelon of film artists; given the little that has been published about his work in English, any new contributions would ordinarily be welcome. But Rudkin’s book isn’t exactly a definitive study of Vampyr, nor does it offer much that hasn’t already been articulated, namely by David Bordwell in his 1981 The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer.

Like Bordwell, Rudkin offers a scene-by-scene formal analysis of the film illustrating how it methodically creates an illogical and unnerving sense of space. (Characters established on screen left suddenly appear on screen right; point-of-view shots suggest shifting angles; camera motions confuse space rather than unify it.) But given the format of the illustrated, 80-page mini-book–and perhaps Rudkin’s background as a screenwriter rather than a critic–his analysis only scratches the surface of Bordwell’s study, which offers a full rendering of the ways in which the film undermines Bazinian concreteness and continuity.

The BFI book is well written, but it would’ve been nice if it had, say, offered commentary on the new print restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, or a comparison of the screenplay to the extant prints, or an elaboration of the film’s production history. It’s a readable introduction to Vampyr‘s formal innovations, but it doesn’t compete with Bordwell’s depth and detail.

The two DVD releases, on the other hand, are improvements on the Criterion box set; Master of the House has never been released on video in the US, and both DVDs come with assorted short films Dreyer made between the late-’40s and early ’50s. (Although I might quibble with the fact that the BFI reprints the same essays by Casper Tybjerg and Mark Nash for both releases.) Ordet comes with a 30-minute featurette on cinematographer Henning Bendtsen, who offers brief comments on the lighting of three scenes.

Master of the House is a chamber drama about a poor working class family in Copenhagen; the husband is a tyrant who demeans everything his dutiful wife and family does, until an elderly nanny (played exquisitely by Mathilde Nielsen) loses her patience, encourages the wife to temporarily leave the home, and takes domestic matters into her own hands. While the film is less comical than Dreyer’s earlier The Parson’s Widow (1920), it provides plenty of amusement as the husband receives his comeuppance. Yet Dreyer’s renowned humanism frames the husband as someone frustrated and insecure about recently losing his job, preventing easy judgments while never excusing his behavior.

Unlike Dreyer’s subsequent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr, his depiction of the space of the apartment is rational and cohesive. “Each home is a world of its own,” an early title card reads. According to Jean and Dale Drum’s biography of Dreyer, his original idea was to film inside an actual two-room apartment, but “the technical requirements of filming a picture were such that he gave up this idea, but he did insist that a complete apartment be built in the studio, with four walls, running water, and electric lights.” Dreyer felt the restricted space would lend visual credibility, even if it proved more difficult to light and shoot. The first few minutes of the film are shot in medium long shots, establishing the confines of the apartment as the wife and daughter move about their morning chores. It’s not until a breakfast scene that Dreyer moves in for close-ups.

One of the film’s most effective practices is its emphasis on the way characters slyly observe and react to the drama around them in subtle ways, from a punished boy standing in a corner who smirks when his father is challenged to the nanny who appears to stare at her sewing but makes strategic glances at objects and people, fully aware and engaged with her surroundings. It’s a remarkably well-observed portrait of a dysfunctional family and the unique ways members cope (no doubt informed by Dreyer’s unhappy childhood). The focused setting, the oppressive relationships, the interactions between the old and the young, and the psychological insights highlight concerns Dreyer would continue to develop and refine in his later masterpieces.

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