After the abstract experimentation that marked the very early years of filmmaking had transitioned into an organised cinematic language with narrative sophistication and artistic substance (thanks to the pioneering work of directors such as Sergei Eisenstein), the peak of silent European feature production saw Britain lacking a strong and identifiable national aesthetic.
Whereas the German film industry, for example, forged ahead into the bold new world of international cinema with the wonderfully skewed and shadowy visual delights of Expressionism, British directors — often partly influenced by films from the Continent — offered solid and entertaining work that nevertheless existed on the fringes of the kind of collective cinematic identity that encompassed a specific range of stylistic signifiers, the kind within which various talented film directors flourished. (Look at Fritz Lang’s terrific early films, which represent the unique work of an auteur, but one nevertheless using the common grammar and language of a particular artistic movement, in this case Expressionism). The best British work of the silent era is efficient, entertaining and individual, rather than part of a visually striking and stylistically innovative Zeitgeist.
Among those promising young British directors producing remarkable early work was Alfred Hitchcock. Although Hitchcock was certainly influenced by German Expressionism during the initial stages of his career, he was already exploring and developing the unique narrative themes and preoccupations that would become so prevalent in his later work: the power of sinister authority, the machinations of criminality, the innocent man accused and his own personal bogeyman, the curious police officer.
Like Hitchcock, another young British director who took some influence from German and Russian filmmaking but still offered a unique authorial voice of his own was Anthony Asquith. Asquith strove for vitality and modernity in his work, and was a filmmaker capable of accomplishment well beyond his years: he was just 26 years old when he made his enthralling and exciting 1928 debut feature, Underground (first released by the formal and indomitable-sounding British Instructional Films), and the film has been newly-restored by the BFI National Archive and is presented here on a dual format DVD/Blu-ray disc along with an excellent new accompanying score. Additionally, as one has come to expect with almost all BFI releases, the disc is packed with a comprehensive range of extras.
The story of Underground follows a quartet of working class young Londoners: Bert, Nell, Bill and Kate. The film focuses primarily on the jealousy and potentially dangerous rivalry between Bill and Bert, who both desire Nell. Kate, on the other hand, was in a relationship with the oafish Bert, but has now been cast aside by him. Indeed, “Brash” Bert, who is not backwards in coming forwards, is unlike the other, sweeter characters, and he plays an instrumental role in the darker events that unfold later in the film.
Underground promotes itself as “a tale a subterranean life”, and indeed the film’s title is a play on the double-meaning of the word: not only is it a literal reference to the film’s primary location, London’s Tube network, but it is also a symbolic reference to the internalised passion of the film’s main characters, which is kept initially dormant and stoically withheld from the bustling world all around (as was dictated by the social code of ‘20s Britain). In order to communicate their affections for one another, coyness is the name of the game, and it’s interesting how this reservation translates visually, with the leads often shown isolated and alone in single mid-shots, even when they are interacting with their love interests.
The narrative of the film is simple and charming, and yet the filmmaking is complex, Asquith utilising a very sophisticated technique to tell his story, with shot framing and editing particular standouts. To modern eyes, the film’s fast-paced montage work is standard and wholly familiar, yet to an audience viewing the film in the late ’20s Underground would have appeared very contemporary, polished and well-made, and this echoes the general tone of modernity within the story: the film’s characters are certainly looking forward to a new technological age, not regressively back at the horrors of the fairly recent Great War and the austerity of its aftermath.
As with any silent film presentation, music will naturally play an important role, and the BFI has an excellent track record of commissioning superb pieces for the DVD and Blu-ray releases of silent material held in its archives. (For further proof, check out the BFI’s 2011 re-release of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence, an archive documentary about Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition featuring Simon Fisher Turner’s tremendously effective Enoesque score, which is both wonderfully elegiac and elegant in tone).
Thankfully, Underground continues this impeccable trend and retains the high level of musical excellence one has come to associate with every in-house BFI project. The bespoke score for the film has been written by Neil Brand, and he is an ideal choice. Not only is Brand the resident music expert on BBC Radio 4’s excellent The Film Programme, but he is also a noted composer, musicologist and film historian, with a special interest in providing accompanying music for silent films, an endeavour he has been successfully involved with for over 30 years.
With such experience behind him, Brand’s work for Underground is, unsurprisingly, perfectly pitched: the driving orchestral score (the BBC Symphony Orchestra, take a bow) is rich, busy and sonorous enough to fill the extra “space” inherent in a film with no diegetic sound whatsoever, yet it is also unobtrusive enough to allow Asquith’s images to breathe and communicate without being too overwhelmed either. (A propensity to create too much overwrought music seems to be a common mistake made by some composers who specialise in writing contemporary, specially-commissioned silent film scores, but that is not the case here).
Overall, Underground is an entertaining, beautifully-made and breezily efficient drama, and it represents the best of Asquith’s early work. The BFI has done a sterling job of restoring the film from original materials – many of which were in a very poor condition — and the resultant picture image is generally sharp and bright. The excellent range of extras on the disc include Restoring Undergound, a short featurette about the film’s restoration, an alternative score by Chris Watson, and a selection of relevant shorts films, including: The Premier and his Little Son, showing previously unseen footage of Asquith as a child; A Trip on the Metropolitan Railway; Scenes at Piccadilly and Hyde Park Corner; Seven More Stations, about the expansion of the Underground’s Central Line, and finally Under Night Streets, about the Tube’s nightshift workers. Rounding off the extras is a beautifully glossy 30-page booklet, containing various essays and plenty of additional information about the film.