I nearly stabbed Silent Steve for putting this one on. A bit like Troubles of a Grass Widower / Vive la Vie de Garçon (1908), but with none of the fun. A bit like Miss Lulu Bett (1921), but with ten times the drabness. The Master of the House tells a simple, brutal, domestic tale in a small flat in long-gone Denmark.
And it’s a bit feminist.
Which is good, mark me. It’s always interesting to see modern sentiments demonstrated as very old indeed, internationally true and – when restored as nicely as the copy we watched on the BFI channel – delivered with a glint of freakishly in-the-room-with-you eye contact. For the stars of this film aren’t shy of simply staring…
To the story: Ida is a mother of three, a housewife and loving soul. Her life is a drudge: keep the house clean, get coffee on demand, prepare sandwiches (at some length – really, buttering bread gets multiple sequences in glorious close-up), warm slippers and tackle a stove so of-its-time it looks like a factory flue with a kettle. Her only joy is her caged birds, kept in the living room as a dash of colour and joy (I assume).
The kids comprise a boy and two girls. Ten, teen and toddler. Hellish.
The husband, Viktor, is the problem. He lost his business recently and is now angry at everything, bullying the others with put-downs and huffy glares.
Regular visitors include Viktor’s nanny from his childhood. Not weird at all, then. And Ida’s Mum. Between them, they’ve cornered the market in angry and glowering old women in 1925 Copenhagen. Ages pass between title cards as they conspire against Viktor and get Ida out of her hell for a few weeks.
And so begins the punishment of the panto-Dad. He’s not hit anyone, don’t worry, but he’s living the midlife torment of the redundant and desperate. His crime is living it badly, and not turning to his loved ones for love. Instead, he goes for bitching about the birds, kids, sandwiches and slippers. Fuckwit.
The lesson here is as simple and obvious as in the two films mentioned above. Much like Lulu’s Dad and Max, Viktor needs to stop being a dick. It takes the shock to sort him out: helping old Nanny Glare around the flat, getting burnt by the kettle, resented by the kids and – in what I sincerely hope is a movie first – changing a nappy on camera. Really. And at no point does he take off his waistcoat. Double dick.
For all its pantomime, this classic (I’ve read up) of Danish cinema is intimate and unexpected in its simple invitation into a family under intense stress. Its emphasis on an arrogant man’s poor treatment of his Ida, his slow return to sympathy through the machinations of a nanny with a terrifying – really, she is chilling – stare, feels very current. But…fuck me…it’s a slog. The thing lasts 80 minutes but feels sooooooooooo muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuch looooooooooonger. The plot is almost too simple, the lingering stares – angry, angsty or loving – just won’t stop. And – in the BFI copy – the piano track makes me fear for the muzak of hell. It plinky-plonks through every scene, ducking and diving up and down your nerves until killing the bastard who suggested watching the thing seems a viable option.
Look, I don’t want to generalise, and if there are other films by Carl Theodor Dreyer (writer-director) that touch on stressed middle-age (Ida and Viktor) and vicious old age (Mads the nanny), I’ll give them a go. But not without good warning and an option to watch in thirty minute chunks. Master of the House is a funless story, undoubtedly beautifully made and a curiosity for taking us into the sadnesses of a long-gone home, but…it’s too much. Too dark. Too small. Too awkward. And too long.
Fun fact: the cast are all dead.
Viktor is played by Johannes Meyer, all surly, besuited, slicked-back and masculine. An optician, it turns out, he visibly softens to his absent Ida as the old women layer on the punishments. Ida is played by Astrid Holm, all geared up in 1920s poverty-chic whilst slaving away, saving pennies to give Viktor treats. She is betrayed by a plot that has her breakdown as soon as the family are out of sight (she hides at her Mum’s, the cunning thing). The kids are cute, if a bit weird. Karin Nellemose is in her first film role as Karen, edging around her Dad and feeding him clues to Ida’s whereabouts as he comes apart at the kettle face.
But the real star? Mathilde Nielsen as Mads the nanny. An old man’s face, wrinkled and over-hanging forehead, dark shadows on her face and eyes pale with rage, Nielsen is frightening. She stresses in one title card that she’ll never be cruel to Viktor, but still hides his slippers, gives him content-free sandwiches and an ambiguous note that implies Ida has a lover. She threatens violence and does to him what he does to his son. Essentially, domestic feminism at play…
Still, it works. The feminist elements of the film are a million miles from political, rather pressing on the importance of stressed, old relationships holding on to the love that made them. Husbands must never take their wives off their pedestals, the film seems to say, dodgily. But it’s 1925, so let them get on with contemporary loveliness.
But, wow, Silent Steve had better go for a comedy next time.
Note: In the BFI print, and some of the versions on the YouTube, they’ve changed all the names. That’s the joy of silents, I guess. The Frandsens of Denmark are…a bit Irish.