Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife

Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968)

By Christian Monggaard, film critic and reviewer at Information, 2006

The domestic tyrant

The housewife starts her day at 6 am. She lights the fire, cooks breakfast and makes coffee, dresses the children and gets ready for her husband, the master of the house, to get out of bed. Grumblingly, without expressing a word of thanks, the man sits down at the table. He has had a bad night’s sleep and uses every opportunity to nag his wife and children. Disappointed and distressed, she tries to make good the damage, but to no avail. It is just one of many days when the husband tyrannises the little home. How much must she put up with? 

Respect and tolerance 

Finally, the housewife has had enough and escapes. The doctor says she has had a nervous breakdown and prescribes peace and quiet. The husband and the children are left alone with the old nanny called “Mads”. And gradually the deserted tyrant realises that he misses his wife terribly. He understands that he has taken her for granted and never appreciated her hard work with house and children. 

Even though Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife is 80 years old it is still a very modern, topical film. It is all about respect and tolerance between the sexes - a much larger and thornier problem at the time of Dreyer than today. The poor living conditions of women in a male-dominated society is an important theme in many of Dreyer’s films. 

Relieving humour 

Dreyer skilfully uses both stern drama and humorous relief in the film, as in the scene when the wizened little nanny Mads puts the grown-up man in his place with authority. Mathilde Nielsen plays this character with fine touches of humour. The film is based on a play by Svend Rindom and was shot at Dreyer’s request in a small, cramped set to emphasise the closeness of domestic family life.
Even though Dreyer already had made films in Sweden and Germany, Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife was his international breakthrough. Later on he went abroad, notably to France, where he was to create his absolute masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Johannes Meyer and Astrid Holm in Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife. 105 min. Manuscript: Carl Th. Dreyer and Svend Rindom ©Det Danske Filminstitut. Producent: Palladium.
Movie poster for Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife. ©Det Danske Filminstitut

Did you know?

Source: Torben Skjødt Jensen: Carl Th. Dreyer - min metier. Dokumentarfilm. Steen Herdel & Co, Unni Straume Filmproduksjon og DFI, Danmark, 1995.

In his early days Carl Th. Dreyer was a clerk. One day the manager showed him a bunch of books with a lot of numbers with the words "Here you see my life". The words scared Dreyer. He did not like the idea of spending the rest of his life in office and therefore left his job, became a journalist and got in touch with the film industry along the way.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Film, 2006

This silent film is modern, Danish everyday realism at its best, filled with precise observations of city family life with a particular eye for how the tyranny of an individual can drive others to madness and become a bomb when in a relationship. If one also adds irony and understated humour, one can almost deduce that the pathos-rich Carl Th. Dreyer must be responsible. However, he is the only director represented by two films in this canon, and this film shows a rarely seen side of his mastery.
The film portrays the life within the four walls of the home of a small family, where the husband has gradually developed into an insufferable tyrant, who becomes angry about everything from the thickness of the butter on his bread to the canary’s twittering. Finally, it becomes so unbearable that the self-sacrificing wife breaks down and the older female members of the family decide to intervene and teach the tyrant a lesson.

The film provides an invaluable insight into the daily life of women in the home as it was 90 years ago. We see in detail how food is prepared, how tables are set, how washing is dried and how children were heard in lessons. Particularly humorous is the portrayal of the power struggle between the husband and his older children’s nurse, under whose fierce gaze his dignity gradually crumbles, such that he himself finally ends up in the same naughty corner that in the beginning he ordered his son into.
A direct line can be drawn to Danish film in the last decade, despite the fact that the principal character in this film is somewhat less of a villain than the father in the Dogme film, Festen (The Celebration). 


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