The Edge of Words

7 February 2014

Dr Claire Thomson, University College London

How to Do Things with Films: Affective Strategies in the Danish Public Information Film


Even before the advent of sound film, governments, businesses and other agencies were using cinema to educate, inform, persuade, and propagandize.

Recent scholarly interest in this ‘other’ cinema history has shown how industrial, educational and public information films have often been in the vanguard of aesthetic and technological innovation, while their contexts of commissioning, distribution and consumption intersect in complex ways with mainstream theatrical cinema.

A particularly large and well-preserved collection of public information films is to be found at the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen. Some 300 short films produced by the government agency Dansk Kulturfilm between 1932 and 1968 have survived, tackling subjects as diverse as architecture, single motherhood, lamp design, and rural sanitation.

These films guide the Danish citizen through industrialization, the Nazi occupation of WWII, and the golden years of the welfare state.

The films construct the welfare state citizen in the national imagination, and they inform, persuade (and indeed entertain) that citizen using a variety of narrative and aesthetic strategies.

This paper focuses on a set of strategies that can be located ‘at the edge of words’: many of the films rely on the activation of sense memory, non-verbal knowledge or collective cultural practice in order to do their work. In other words, their effect depends on affect.