Sunday, 11 May 2014

MASTER OF THE HOUSE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Decades ahead of its time, the silent Carl Th. Dreyer masterpiece of comedy deservedly receives the lavish Criterion Collection treatment.

Thank God for the Criterion Collection. I first caught up with this Carl Th. Dreyer masterpiece on 35mm during a Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque screening a few years ago and have been dreaming ever since that I'd be able to see it again. The dream is now reality. Master of the House, the huge hit comedy by the delectably dreary Dane is here for all to enjoy on a magnificent Dual Format (Blu-Ray and DVD) package from The Criterion Collection. Now I can see it again and again. So too, can you.

Viktor (Johannes Mayer) and Ida (Astrid Holm)
A man's home is his castle. A man's wife, his slave.

Stunning new Criterion cover design
by Béatrice Coron
Master of the House (1925) *****
Dir. Carl Th. Dreyer
Starring: Johannes Mayer, Astrid Holm,
Mathilde Nielsen, Clara Schønfeld, Johannes Nielsen

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Carl Th. Dreyer was always ahead of his time. His greatness and importance to the art of cinema is inestimable. In terms of theme, he was probably one of the few filmmakers to consistently tackle the exploitation of women under the thumb of patriarchy. Though many of these same films from 1928 onwards also blended his concerns with the spirit and the flesh, nobody, but nobody during this period came close to capturing the harrowing worlds of women who would dare to have their own thoughts and desires. He managed to out-Ibsen Ibsen. In terms of style, he told stories using a myriad of original groundbreaking methods that paved the way for all the cinema that followed him. For much of his post Master of the House career, Dreyer's unique stories and approaches seldom found favour with either the movie-going public and/or financiers. From 1928 to 1964 he made only six features, one of which he disowned and had withdrawn. and sadly, he died before making his last proposed film, Jesus.

Master of the House was a huge box-office success in 1925. In terms of actual admissions to cinemas, it easily toppled many subsequent hits in the modern age where grosses purport to mean something. His followup picture in 1926, the delightfully titled The Bride of Glomdal, a romantic comedy with dashes of Griffith-style action in its climax also collected healthy admissions at the ticket wickets. In fact, many of Dreyer's silent pictures found favour with audiences. His 1920 The Parson's Widow served up - even by today's standards - the daring tale of a young parson forced into marrying a frumpy crone some fifty years older than he, but manages to sneak his young true love under the roof as his sister. (Days of Heaven, anyone? Albeit with a much happier ending than Malick afforded us.) Leaves From Satan's Book from 1921 follows Satan throughout history as he attempts to convert and rebuff followers for the mercy of his own soul. Michael from 1924 (!!!) is one of the first major works of gay-themed cinema and features a homosexual relationship between an older man and young lad as well as a subplot involving unrequited gay love. Dreyer constantly pushed the narrative envelopes and in terms of camera work, experimented with leisurely, austere shots and rich, exquisitely composed frames cut with considerable urgency.

And then came The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928, the hugely expensive period costume drama that defied every known filmmaking tradition to man - its perverse angles, the rapid-fire cutting, the insane number of shots, the breaking of the axis to convey a beleaguered POV and most of all, the closeups. There was, up to this point, nobody like Dreyer in terms of capturing the landscape of the human face and the orbs of the eyes as pools one could use to dive into the souls of his characters. The Passion of Joan of Arc went beyond anything Dreyer had done, though building on less than a decade of astonishing experimentation. This is a film that to this day cannot be touched for its sheer audacious invention. In 2010, the curators of the Toronto International Film Festival proclaimed it to be the most influential film of all time.

Yet in 1928, it flopped. Big time. So much so that every subsequent work became harder and harder to finance.

Master of the House, then, is the perfect Dreyer picture to be made more widely available in this day and age when cinema is becoming more and more predictable and less inventive than ever before, a day and age when grosses mean everything and yet, mean nothing when one does the real math and realizes that average ticket prices are now in the $15 range as opposed to the $0.15 average in Dreyer's heyday. And allow me to reiterate, Master of the House was a HUGE HIT! In terms of intelligence and sophistication, though, it blows most everything made today out of the water. In terms of cinematic daring, it makes state of the art digital effects little more than circus sideshow sleights of hand.

Master of the House is mature to the max, but in 1925 it had the ability to appeal to everybody. I daresay it could even do so today. Like the best romantic or even screwball comedy, Dreyer's film, based upon a popular play entitled Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife by Sven Rindom, has a very simple tale on its surface. Viktor (Johannes Mayer) and Ida (Astrid Holm) live with their three children in a comfortable, though small flat. They are obviously well off enough to keep Mads (Mathilde Nielsen) a nanny/housekeeper in their employ. And sure enough, Ida's Mom (Clara Schønfeld) is extremely well-to-do, but as Viktor is the master of the house, it is he who must provide. Unfortunately, his role as a breadwinner seems to give him the right to treat Ida like a slave. The first half of the film doesn't even play out as a comedy. His treatment of Ida is dismissive, nasty and abusive. It gets to a point where she's becoming deathly ill and zapped of all spirit. Mads and Ida's Mom concoct a secret plan. They steal Ida away when Viktor is not home. She stays with her Mother and under a Doctor's (Johannes Nielsen) orders, Viktor must not see her until she's well again - if ever!

And here, the comedy does indeed roll in with the force of a tsunami. Viktor, once the Master of the House, is reduced to a slave by the wily Mads. He must now learn how much work it is to be a homemaker and realize just how horrid he's been to Ida. For her part, Ida is so on-the-mend that being away from her brutish husband is having quite the emancipating effect upon her.

Watching Viktor get his comeuppance is truly hilarious, but Dreyer takes us deeper than the mere skin of the narrative and we're deftly dealt several hands that expose a variety of layers to the lives of the men and women of the bourgeoisie.

And above all, in spite of everything, love exists between these two people, but the tale paints several pictures that illustrate just how both of their lives have been turned topsy-turvy by the mores and demands of society and how the roles of men and women in a patriarchal world so easily become entrenched in horrendous master-slave relationships. This is a couple who once worked together and then, even more surprisingly, the one thing that truly defines Viktor as a man in the world has, it seems, been snatched away from him and his ego, fuelled more by societal pressure is what drives him to compensate for his loss and become a monster.

Dreyer, ultimately looks to tell a tale of redemption, but to get there, the suffering is as real, painful and yes, funny and there are no guarantees that anything is going to work out the way any of the characters would want it to.

Not only is the story layered with all manner of psychological and political complexity, but the manner in which Dreyer shoots the film is utterly extraordinary. Most of the film takes place in one room, yet never do we feel claustrophobic until Dreyer wants us to through the POV of his characters. His shots are gems, gorgeously composed and always rooted in character and/or dramatic action. He values the "proscenium" and creates movement within it via extremely sophisticated blocking and a superlative use of the sets, props and overall reality of the space.

This is the kind of comedy most of us yearn for, but alas, in this day and age it's been replaced with sledgehammers and/or misplaced story elements that can never get the mix between comedy and tragedy just right and certainly never as well as this brilliant Dane did - a man who created one of the biggest box-office romantic/screwball comedy hits (albeit of the Danish variety) some 90 (!!!) years ago. And guess what? He did it with grace, intelligence and invention.

See for yourself. I think you'll be shocked.

Master of the House is available via the Criterion Collection in a dual format box with both Blu-Ray and DVD, both formats lovingly mastered and transferred. Béatrice Coron's gorgeous cover art houses an exquisite package that includes an all new 2K digital restoration, with a reconstructed score by composer Gillian B. Anderson, expertly performed by pianist Sara Davis Buechner and presented in uncompressed stereo. There's a new interview with Carl Theodor Dreyer historian Casper Tybjerg, a decent visual essay on Dreyer’s innovations by film historian David Bordwell, new English inter title translation and in the accompanying booklet, an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu.