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Dreyer Diary #5: “Master of the House”

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is running a Carl Th. Dreyer retrospective, appropriately and monolithically titled DREYER, from March 13 - March 31. Here you will find my quick notes as I plunge in deep with the Dane. I hope we learn something as we march forward (and step back) with care.


Daily ritual cramps life at the outset in Master of the House (1925). Complacency is the target as a good wife's dutiful acceptance of her role, which she props up larger than her capacities, has bred a spoiled husband—and exhausted her to illness. Thus a plan to reform the husband through punishment and denial. The old tough love routine: wife recovers in secluded country air (she's seen enclosed there, too) while husband endures a new training from an old nanny on how to participate in a home. Routine becomes repetitive, becomes explicit behavioral training, and education is a one-way battle. It's also about asserting the feminine right to power in a patriarchal order, a gender study decades before co-eds could sign up. A key image late shows three generations of ladies looking at this now-reformed man of the house willingly wash his dishes, their faces triangulated over the top two thirds of the frame. Dreyer shoots the couple's reunion from behind the man with the woman's handshands we've seen butter bread and skin potatoes, load wood and carry laundry, burn on the stovecreeping into sight around his neck, as if to assert her claim. Finally we see her hands start the clock, as echoed by Ordet, and we see their love in a metronome swing between them, heart to heart. Their marriage finds a new beginning, as echoed by Ordet, with the man acceding to his better. And the woman shines fresh with life. If Dreyer is the ultimate master of this house, as he angles our eyes on its every cranny, he does his best to build a space where optimism may brim.

I don’t know if the ambiguity here is intended or comes with the age of the film (or perhaps a bit of both), but two of the images you point to seem far less happy or even content then then narrative presumes them to be: the marital embrace (which looks like a shot from Godard’s Une femme mariée) and the re-starting of the clock. The latter, especially, starts out the film as being associated with the routine drudgery of the wife’s household tasks, and re-starting it only seems to re-introduce a sense of deadening time to the film (where the husband’s tutelage was a kind of frozen time capsule).
I definitely agree about the first one: those hands look fiendish, almost, as they tremble up around his neck. The clock one, though, seems pretty happy with how it frames them, and how the pendulum swings between their bodies, linking them, while they smile. I realize that the clock restarting can mean just what you say about frozen time but it seems to me like it’s more about how they got to where (and, yes, when) it would be “okay” to start the clock again; what it takes to set up a space that can be deemed “a part of the world” where time is such a barometer.

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