Remembering Anthony Asquith’s Underground

Juliet Jacques returns to one of Britain’s best silent films.

For decades, Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) was known as one of Britain’s greatest silent films but barely seen. A story of love and betrayal set around “the Tube”, it was restored by the British Film Institute’s National Archive and re-released this January to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Metropolitan Railway station opening at Baker Street. Now issued on DVD with Neil Brand’s soundtrack and a host of extras, including a documentary about how the BFI used a French print from the Cinemathèque Royale in Brussels and two reels of original negative to recreate the film as originally screened, Asquith’s "British picture of Modern London Life" can finally be enjoyed by a wide audience.

Underground was not Asquith’s filmmaking debut – he worked with A V Bramble on Shooting Stars in 1927 – but it was the first time that he directed his own screenplay. Aged 26, Asquith was from a highly privileged background, being the son of former Liberal Prime Minister H H Asquith and educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Despite his upbringing, Asquith was a staunch socialist, fascinated at the social mixing facilitated by the 65-year-old Underground network.

Underground, however, wasn’t quite the "cinema for the masses" that avant-garde film journal Close-Up demanded after its launch in 1927. A modern, if not Modernist movie, shot at night in Waterloo station and the Lots Road Power Station, as well as Chelsea Embankment, Thistle Grove Alley, and (possibly) Selfridges, Underground was about London life, in its parks, department stores and bedsits, looking at how the Tube, buses, radio and telephones had changed the urban world, but it focused on four "ordinary work-a-day people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert".

The way that the Tube connects people is central to Underground’s plot: the film opens with a train leaving a tunnel to a platform crowded with people, who clamour for seats. This provides some interesting glimpses of how the Tube looked before Frank Pick and Harry Beck redesigned it – Beck’s famous diagram was not finished until 1933, so we see an old map of what became the Northern Line. Much else, though, is familiar to 21st century commuters: passengers talk across each other; a man leans over someone’s shoulder to read his newspaper; a woman tires of a man’s leering, grabs his cap and throws it across the carriage.

In Underground, the old wooden escalators, an American invention introduced in 1910 and abolished after the fire at King’s Cross in 1987, provide some light humour – the diagonal cut-offs meant that anyone who ignored the advice to "Step Off Right Foot First" would trip, a small gift for slapstick-age London filmmakers. The escalators keep shop assistant Nell and underground porter Bill, who have just met, apart: they find each other again, fall in love and agree to get married, but electrician Bert also meets Nell on the Tube and proposes to her, resolving to leave his live-in partner, seamstress Kate.

As the relationships develop, the camera moves overground, offering a panorama of inter-war London life. There’s a real joy at seeing familiar scenes as they existed then, such as the man selling paintings on the Embankment, matched only by the colour sequences in Claude Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1926). Asquith’s simple storyline creates high drama, heightened by the restrained performances of leads Elissa Landi and Brian Aherne, far from the stereotypical silent film over-acting. Norah Baring, as Kate, is the most expressive, as Bert uses her as a pawn in his efforts to tear Bill and Nell apart, and despite the lack of dialogue, the scenes between Kate and Nell are sensitive, almost conspiratorial, contrasting them with Bill and Bert’s brutal pub fights.

These are brilliantly composed, the second brawl opening with a broken mirror after the first ended with Bert throwing billiard balls across the room, before swiftly panning back to the violence. Silent film historian Bryony Dixon writes in the sleeve notes that the punch into the camera that terminates one brawl is far better executed than a similar moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s boxing film The Ring (1927), but otherwise, Underground is shot without obvious trickery: Asquith occasionally uses montage or overlays to portray the masses of commuters or a leading character’s thoughts, or shadows to suggest that Bert’s presence is becoming more threatening, but he utilises these German Expressionist devices without borrowing the contorted sets or plots of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Metropolis.

Asquith carefully ramps up the tension, as Nell comes to Bert and Kate’s tiny lodgings, only to find that he has left for his new job at the power station. The climactic scenes at Lots Road, where the 11,000-volt high tension cable immediately spells danger, are the film’s most impressive. The camera pans up to the industrial building’s windows and smoke stacks as Kate races after Bert, and there’s an ominous sense of her becoming lost in its machinery as soon as she enters, so expertly does Asquith frame her within it. Cyril McLaglen plays Bert as quietly menacing rather than maniacal, and the way he looks through Kate at their final confrontation is quite chilling: then, there is a chase scene as gripping as anything else in British cinema, like that in Robert Hamer’s classic, claustrophobic dissection of working-class London life in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947).

Contemporary critics, particularly those at Close-Up, felt that British silent cinema made no significant contribution to the new art’s form developing language, and its reputation never quite recovered. Certainly, Underground borrowed more techniques than it invented, but the intelligence with which it places its protagonists amidst the pressures of city life and its combination of drama and humour put it alongside Hitchcock’s The Lodger, Hindle Wakes by Maurice Elvey and E A Dupont’s Piccadilly in the first ranks of 1920s British film, and remains a sincere, touching document of its time.

A still from "Underground". Image: BFI

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

AKG-IMAGES/DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY
Show Hide image

Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt