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Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Shaun Heenan discovers (via Fandor) Dreyer's Master of the House and Ozu's I was Born But...

As I mentioned last week, I’d already seen the vast majority of this week’s Criterion selections from Fandor, which this week showed classics of silent cinema. The selection included films from Charlie Chaplin, Victor Sjöström and G.W. Pabst, as well as Benjamin Christensen’s quasi-documentary Haxan (1922), which I wrote about here recently. This week I watched the two films on that list I hadn’t seen: one Danish and austere (though described by Criterion as a ‘gentle comedy’), the other Japanese and playful (though heartfelt and soul-searching).

Master of the House (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1925) impressed me with the sophistication and intricacy of its storytelling. Dreyer’s film examines the life of a hard-working woman whose overbearing and cruel husband is making her life a misery. She puts him first in everything, even scraping the butter from her own bread to offer him a better meal, but nothing she does is ever enough to please him. He lashes out at her constantly, and is equally harsh with his children. The wife’s mother and an old friend who helps look after the children see this situation, and try to convince our heroine to leave.

Dreyer spends a lot of time examining the specifics of housework. We watch as chores are carried out, and the time we spend with them helps to make it more heartbreaking when they are ignored or criticised. The plot is more complicated than that of many silent films I have seen, but the precision and clarity of Dreyer make it easier to follow than most. While Dreyer was good at conveying human suffering, he doesn’t wallow in it. Indeed, he swings too hard in the other direction as the film closes, giving us a happy ending which seems curiously naïve. There’s also a truly bizarre statement in the opening title card, which implies that cruel men like this are a thing of the past in Denmark, but they still exist elsewhere in the world. What an optimist.

I was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1932) is a similarly complex silent work, though it offers a good dose of fun before delving into the depths of human insecurity. The film follows a pair of young boys who have moved to a new town, and who get into a great deal of innocent mischief. I was surprised to be reminded of the Beano comics I read as a child, but that’s the tone Ozu used for the first half of his film. The brothers clash with a group of bullies at their new school, but they’re treated as more of a puzzle to be solved than a threat.

The comic tone of the film seemed out of character to me at first, since I am familiar with Ozu from his work in slow and subtle familial dramas like Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953) and Floating Weeds (1959). This side of Ozu appears in sudden and dramatic fashion in the second half of the silent film, as the boys realise their father works for one of their classmates. They confront their father, accusing him of being an unimportant person, and Ozu spends a long time watching the father as his sons’ words strike a nerve, throwing him into a deep and dark existential crisis. It takes a deft hand to weave such glee and such anguish into a cohesive whole, and Ozu was up to the task even in the early stages of his career.

We’ll stay in Japan for next week’s piece, as Fandor’s new selections are a series of films from Akira Kurosawa, focusing on his work set in the 20th century. I’ve seen a number of his films, but almost all of those have been samurai epics. I’m looking forward to exploring another side of his work.

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