In the Frandsen household, Mrs Frandsen, Ida, toils from dawn to dusk, while her tyrannical husband, Viktor, requires constant attention and complains about everything. Viktor’s old nursemaid, Mads, is appalled at Viktor’s persistent rudeness. Soon, Ida’s health is in tatters and she is persuaded to move back in with her mother for a while. Mads takes over the household, bringing disquiet and discomfort into Viktor’s well-structured daily life. After a month of Mads’ disciplining, Viktor has learned to be gracious and accommodating. He desperately misses Ida, who by now has completely recuperated. After an emphatic talking-to from Mads, Viktor is reunited with his beloved wife.
The film, a chamber play, merges canny humour with subtle psychological observation. Apart from a few scenes, Dreyer restricts all the action to the family’s small apartment, keeping us close to the characters. Dreyer personally did the set design, purportedly recreating a real apartment very exactly, even though the set had movable walls that made it possible to place the camera on any side of the actors. Dreyer sustains a consciously unglamorous everyday realism throughout, portraying every character with generous sympathy. The film is uncommonly fast cut for a Danish film in this period. The central theme is the husband’s lack of an eye for his wife’s devoted self-sacrifice, hence it is significant that the film is always showing us what the various characters see (or don’t see) and how they react. Dreyer pulls this off through a carefully constructed web of point-of-view shots, medium shots and close-ups.
An unusually big hit in France, Master of the House paved the way for Dreyer’s Joan of Arc film. Posterity has also treasured it, notably for its realism and theme. For those critics who consider Dreyer’s obsession with suffering women to be the fulcrum of his oeuvre, the film is naturally a central work. Still, Master of the House’s tone of reconciliation and humour is worth emphasising. The film stands out as an homage to marital happiness founded on mutual respect.