For his seventieth birthday in 1964, Poul Henningsen – the Danish cultural critic best known abroad for his iconic lamp designs – is said to have received as gifts an architectural competition in his name, and a Beatles-style wig (Hammerich 1986: 434). A third honour was bestowed that year upon the man commonly known as PH: the première of the short film PH lys (PH Light). Directed by Ole Roos and co-written by Henningsen himself, the film structures a treatise on society, art and nature around the technological development of PH’s lamps. PH Light was amongst the very last films to be made under the auspices of Dansk Kulturfilm (Danish Culture Film), a government agency responsible for some 400 short films over the previous three decades. PH Light can also be seen as a final filmic fling for Henningsen, whose potential and ambitions as a director were never to be achieved after the fiasco surrounding his film Danmark (Denmark) of 1935. While PH’s Denmark and (especially) its reception have been rather thoroughly analysed by film scholars, PH Light has been left to lurk in the shadows.
PH Light can also be seen as a final filmic fling for Henningsen, whose potential and ambitions as a director were never to be achieved after the fiasco surrounding his film Danmark (Denmark) of 1935.
PH as film critic and filmmaker
Poul Hammerich (1986: 396) makes the poignant claim that Henningsen was continually taken up with film projects and screenplays, but forever remained ‘cinema’s spurned lover’. Indeed, Denmark is our only indication of what PH might have achieved as a director, had he been granted the opportunity to develop his talent in that sphere. Henningsen collaborated on a number of screenplays and in the 1955 experimental film Meninger i tiden (Opinions of the Time, directed by Børge Høst) (see Hammerich 1986: 396). However, as is well known, the press and popular reaction against his 1935 Denmark was so hostile as to preclude further commissions as director.
For Schepelern (2006), Denmark offers both the most interesting and the most scandalous reception case study in Danish film history, and ranks today amongst the nation’s most canonical films. Jørgen Sørensen (1979; 2006) argues, on the basis of extensive research in the film’s reception history, that the hostile reaction stemmed from the tension between the film’s status as a state-commissioned film, and the radically modern vision of the nation it constructed. The film is imbued with an insistent, cyclical rhythm that grows out of an alchemy of camera movement, editing, spiral motifs and a jazz soundtrack (e.g. de Waal 2008: 30). It was precisely his use of jazz which would attract censure as un-Danish, compounding the film’s honest and playful exposition of a nation peopled with scruffy peasants and drunks, and not nearly enough pretty blonde girls or national folk music (Petterson 2009; Linde-Laursen 1999: 24; Hertel 2012: 10ff).
Framegrab from Denmark (Poul Henningsen, 1935).
Given his documented interest in cinema, it is curious that PH’s substantial, book-length essay of 1933, Hvad med kulturen? (What about Culture?) does not explicitly discuss film as a tool for public enlightenment. In 1933, Henningsen was already involved in the production of Denmark. The commissioning process for a new film on Denmark that would present the nation to foreign audiences had begin in 1930, under the auspices of the Press Section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Linde-Laursen reports that
"Henningsen’s) name began to appear in the minutes of the (film) committee’s meetings in February 1932. In July of the same year, he presented his first draft to the committee (...) Beginning in 1933 PH travelled around Denmark filming scenes." (Linde-Laursen 1999: 23). What about Culture? constitutes a call to arms for the arts as a sine qua non of a civilised political culture. The Danish political system, thinks the author, is allowing the question of culture to drift, and the danger is that it will drift in the same direction as Germany or the USSR (Henningsen 1968: 5). In an era of political polarisation between revolution and reaction, in Denmark as elsewhere in the world, Henningsen insists that culture cannot be considered in isolation from economics and politics, and that the middle ground – social democracy in the case of Denmark – must take ownership of the cultural agenda (Henningsen 1968: 6). The same vacuum had also existed before Hitler’s power grab in Germany, with egregious results; Denmark’s largest political party, claims Henningsen, was allowing its own working class children to be brought up on religious and patriotic fairytales, rather than bolstering the population with the sort of culture that could foment resistance to a reactionary offensive (Henningsen 1968: 36).
But the puzzle remains: why, when the book was written during the production process, did Henningsen not draw on his ideas and experience as a newly-fledged filmmaker to inform his thesis on the political function of the arts? The author’s refusal to include cinema in his opening justification for the discursive scope of the book is almost studied:
"A broad survey of social conventions will not be undertaken in this book. It is of course clear that social life, teaching in schools, science etc. are dependent on politics and economics. It is more interesting to see how an apparently completely free thing such as painting functions – with occasional excursions to architecture and so on. Music and literature, too, can only really be touched on in a picture book" (Henningsen 1968: 5. All translations from Danish are my own, unless otherwise indicated).
Some possible explanations occur. The simplest is that Henningsen was an ingénu as a filmmaker, still learning the ropes. Other clues emerge in his fairly sparse writing on film over the previous decade. In 1925, PH had published a review essay of Charlie Chaplin’s film of that same year, The Gold Rush. He is thoroughly impressed by Chaplin’s acting, but less so by the technical possibilities of film and their impact on narrative:
"It is striking that the new possibilities afforded by the method of reproduction, film, in comparison to theatre, only lower the level of artistry. It will always be the case that if the limits of an art form are expanded by technical means, the results will be poor (...) It is striking that film’s great advantage is that it is silent. What would Chaplin be if he spoke (...) Filmmakers must realise, unless they wish to be talentless forever, that the new possibilities are not at all easy ways out, but extremely demanding and awkward, at least if the harmony we know from the composition of theatre plays is not to be lost in film. For film is not a new Art." (Henningsen 1973: 44).
Nevertheless, by 1934, in the Danish daily Politiken, Henningsen was expressing the opinion that film had enriched the theatre, and that its development was in line with other forms of art that had undergone periods of barbarism in the wake of technological development (Henningsen 1984: 53). Significantly, in this essay he lists as examples of the same progressive dynamic the influence of film on theatre, concrete on architecture, machines on industry, and electric light on older lighting cultures – all topics that are taken up implicitly or explicitly in his film collaborations. By implication, the potentials and practices of filmmaking could therefore be subsumed under the other branches of the arts explicitly discussed in What about Culture? Allan de Waal has, for example, argued that the camerawork in Danmark can be understood holistically as an extension of PH’s broader artistic interests of the 1930s, which also influenced the design of his lamps: urban culture, modernist songwriting, jazz music, theatre design (de Waal 1994: 14-21). In this respect, it is not insignificant that Henningsen had addressed the issue of cinema’s latest technological development – the coming of sound – with the aid of his knowledge of jazz syncopation.
Still from PH Light. Photographer: Peter Roos.
However, an alternative explanatory factor for this lacuna in What about Culture? resides in the ambiguous role and status of the broad genre to which Henningsen’s Denmark belongs. On the one hand, we can observe that films on Denmark were not a new phenomenon in the mid-1930s: PH’s film was commissioned to replace earlier productions now outdated by the transition to sound film. On the other hand, Henningsen’s own thinking on art in society, as laid out in What about Culture?, provides a framework for consideration of the complex function of Denmark which also echoes recent film scholarship on so-called ‘useful cinema’. This tension between film as art and film as utility is the focus of the next section.
Between art film and ‘useful cinema’
Commissioned by a government body, Denmark is neither straightforwardly an art film nor a documentary; in Henningsen’s own terms, it problematises the distinction between forms of social life that are entangled with, even dictated by, politics and economics, versus the free play of art. In fact, Henningsen’s conceptual mapping of the arts in society soon reveals that there is no such thing as ‘free art’; the arts are always dependent on patronage, subject to historically-specific socio-economic conditions, and they engage with those same conditions (Henningsen 1968: 8). This artificial distinction is painstakingly deconstructed in What about Culture?
Firstly, Henningsen is interested in the temporality of the production and societal impacts of art, seeing art as a ‘barometer’ for social change and musing that ‘art comes after its pre-conditions but before its effects’ (Henningsen 1968: 30):
"What is it that art comes after and before? The general cultural situation, the broad population’s conception of beauty, morals, social norms, actually trail far behind the economic situation. (...) But the active cultural work on the part of artists is markedly up-to-date." (Henningsen 1968: 30-31, emphasis in original).
Secondly, he is concerned with how the social impact of art can be grasped:
"It is the nature of the problem that it is extremely difficult to prove the effects of art, or at least to provide proof. However, the revolutionary tendency in politics has no doubt of the impact of conservative art, and it is thus logical to assume that any art which breaks down prevailing ideas will have the opposite effect." (Henningsen 1968: 37).
Both these considerations – how can the influence of the arts be measured, and over what timescale do they unfurl? – posit a catalytic role for the artist in anticipating social norms and breaking down fossilised ideas. What is left implicit is the knotty problem of whether such a role for art can be planned. Put differently, can the gap in social democratic cultural policy which inspired Henningsen’s treatise be plugged by the intervention of the artist? Is this the work that artists can contribute to society, since they are, as Henningsen muses (1968: 7), ill-equipped for other kinds of work?
As discussed above, Henningsen was involved at the time of writing What about Culture? in a film project in which he himself performed this catalytic role in the service of the state – albeit the final product proved too iconoclastic for its sponsors and reviewers, demonstrating the potential of art to anticipate emerging social conventions rather than conform to existing ones. The film Denmark can thus be seen as a petri-dish in which Henningsen was able to test out his hypotheses about the potential of art to foster a middle way between reaction and revolution. While PH’s Denmark was not commissioned by Dansk Kulturfilm, which was first established in 1932, the film’s liminal status and complex function are typical of the works made under the auspices of that agency. The law establishing Dansk Kulturfilm opens as follows:
"“Danish Culture Film”, based in Copenhagen, is established with effect from 30 August 1932, with the purpose of working for the dissemination of films that serve to promote education and enlightenment or that function as general propaganda for Denmark or Danish business and industry." (Law on Dansk Kulturfilm, § 1., my emphasis).
Dansk Kulturfilm - between art and industry
Dansk Kulturfilm originated as a private enterprise but was merged early on with Lærernes Lysbilledforening (the Teachers’ Moving Image Association) and Skolernes Filmcentral (the Schools’ Film Agency). During the next three decades, Dansk Kulturfilm commissioned or produced some 400 short films for a wide variety of clients on every conceivable subject: from science to architecture, from bio-pics of national personages to road safety, from farming to city life (see Richter Larsen, n.d.; Alsted & Nørrested, 1987). As Bondebjerg (n.d.) comments, Dansk Kulturfilm anticipates the principles of later state support for Danish film: "since state funding via Dansk Kulturfilm was channelled into the production of enlightening and culturally worthy films, we hear the echo here of later forms of Danish film policy". But we might also add, in the context of the present discussion, that Dansk Kulturfilm contributed to filling the gap in 1930s social democratic cultural policy that Henningsen bemoaned in What about Culture? Of course, the name of the organisation echoed that of its German counterpart which exploited the potential of film to serve the ideology of National Socialism, an ideology to which Henningsen’s little book is implacably opposed. On the other hand, the influence from British documentary film practice of the 1930s on its Danish equivalent is also well-established. Schepelern (2006) ponders whether PH’s Denmark may in fact have influenced the British classic documentary Night Mail (Harry Watt, 1936).
As films commissioned by a variety of institutional actors but drawing on the artistic and technical expertise of filmmakers, Denmark, and the films of Dansk Kulturfilm to which we shall shortly turn, hover uneasily between art and industry. They are exemplars of what Acland and Wasson have termed ‘useful cinema’. The history of this prolific, widespread and dynamic ‘other cinema’ (Wasson and Acland 2011: 2) runs parallel to that of the commercial, theatrical sector:
"(C)ameras, films, and projectors have been taken up and deployed variously – beyond questions of art and entertainment – in order to satisfy organizational demands and objectives, that is, to do something in particular (...) Culture, in this respect, shapes debates, moves populations, directs capital, furthers authority, and ordains the self." (Wasson and Acland 2011: 3, emphasis in original).
The emphasis on the utility of cinema is echoed in another recent anthology entitled Films That Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media. In their introduction, Hediger and Vonderau (2009: 12) stake a claim for the importance of industrial film research in excavating "the complex interrelationship of visuality, power, and organization, and specifically how film as a medium creates the preconditions for forms of knowledge and social practice." This is a neat summary of the issues at stake in the film analysis in the final part of this article. However, somewhat reductively, Hediger and Vonderau (2009:10) specifically discourage analysis of non-theatrical film "through the auteurist lens". While carving out a critical praxis pertinent to the ‘other’ cinema of public, educational and industrial films is undeniably an important task, I want to claim that the ‘auteurist lens’ can, in fact, be crucial to our appreciation of how ‘films that work’ actually do their work. As we now move on to consider Poul Henningsen’s collaboration with Ole Roos on the 1964 film PH Light, we might observe that the role of the auteur or artist can in fact be fundamental to the film’s construction of its ‘national’ audience, and to its multivalent project of ‘enlightenment.’
National lighting, national enlightenment
My basic hypothesis here is that public information films for a national audience (or, by extension, for a foreign audience, as in PH’s Denmark of 1935) construct and address their viewers as belonging to a community defined by shared knowledge. To nuance this point a little, we can turn to literary critic Jonathan Culler’s discussion of Benedict Anderson’s theory (1991) of the role of the novel in constructing and disseminating narratives of the nation or ‘imagined community’. Culler argues that
"(it) is not only a question of who reads [novels] but of whom they address. Novels construct a role for readers by positing a reader who knows some things but not everything, needs to have some things explained but not others." (Culler 1999: 27).
This evokes not only the repository of cultural knowledge which the individual carries by virtue of his/her participation in a culture, but also that both narrator and implied reader (or, in the case of our present discussion, viewer) are conscious of their mutual common knowledge. As Mette Hjort has established in her seminal essay Themes of Nation (2000), a filmic world can seem to invest in a national setting though use of typical local cultural items and practices, without necessarily thematising that ‘nationness’. Objects typical of a national culture need to be explicitly flagged, argues Hjort, before the film can be said to be ‘about’ the nation. In the case of the short film PH Light, the PH lamps, and, crucially, Henningsen himself, function to thematise national belonging and to construct the viewer as a member of that imagined national community (see Anderson 1991). It should be remembered that the film will be received and understood differently by different generations of Danes in different contexts, and that these contexts are socially, institutionally, and technologically determined. For example, the film has been made available in Danish schools via the streaming service Filmstriben.dk. The concomitant ability to consume and engage with the film by stilling, freeze-framing and re-watching at will is a different learning experience to that available to the 1960s audience in their cinema seats (or in the classroom listening to the whirr of the 16mm projector). With these caveats about the consumption context in mente, a range of aesthetic strategies can nonetheless be identified. In what follows, I shall examine the use in PH Light of
(a) shared cultural knowledge in the national context;
(b) the staging of PH as national icon in the context of international cinema culture; (c) the staging of the national public sphere as a space of tension between techne and authority; and
(d) the operation of multisensory strategies.
PH Light - at home
The film opens with a direct exhortation to the viewer: don’t believe in cheap light! The film sets itself the task of contextualising contemporary lighting practices in the age-old tradition of ‘transforming night into day’. In the first sequence, set in Henningsen’s own house, the film appeals to two elements of cultural knowledge shared by the viewers: the quality of light at different times of day as the seasons change, and the traditional presence of the hearthfire at the centre of the house. Firstly, types of lightbulbs are compared to the qualities of natural light they attempt to imitate: specifically, they are held up against the peculiar qualities of the winter sun in northerly climes like Denmark. Artificial light, insists Henningsen, should be calibrated with natural light – and thus both should be locally inflected. The second focal point is the fireplace, where the camera lingers on a fire burning cosily. At 4 mins 15, the image of PH’s first lamp design appears superimposed over the fire; as the fire fades to black, the lamp moves forward, filling the screen. This original lamp design is thus narratively and visually connected with the most basic form of human technology: the fire. Indeed, Henningsen explains that the design, dating from 1925, was conceived to eliminate the glare – or the ‘arrows of light’ – produced by artificial light, in order to better imitate older forms of domestic illumination such as firelight. The recent re-design of his classic lamp, it transpires, was forced by changes in the design of mass-produced lightbulbs.
The new lamps’s extra panels have been added to further protect the human eye from glare produced by the mismatch of the new lightbulb and old lamp design. What is most interesting about this segment is the discursive and visual association of natural light, specific to Danish climes, with ‘good’ domestic lighting practices. Though the term ‘hygge’ (‘cosiness’) is not used in the film, what we are privy to here is a manifesto for what specifically Danish lighting ought to be, and, as a corollary, a blueprint for culturally-specific patterns of energy use. The emphasis on the passing of ‘good old days’ of quality lightbulb production further codes the original PH lamp as an object of Danish cultural heritage.
PH Light, then, undertakes to explain the design principles behind Henningsen’s ubiquitous lamps in the words of the designer himself. Not only is Henningsen credited as Ole Roos’ co-writer on the film; he also narrates it, at times speaking directly to camera or to an interlocutor, and at times providing a voiceover to an animation or demonstration. Henningsen’s voice was well-known to Danish audiences of the time from media appearances, but it had also featured in the voiceover of his film Denmark. In that context, Linde-Laursen (1999: 25; see also Hertel 2012: 10ff) reports that the popular press construed his voice as ‘boring and hackneyed’. In PH Light, however, the inclusion of the lamp designer’s own sonorous tone is just one aspect of the film’s complex staging of Poul Henningsen as the icon PH: the distinctive spectacles, the erudite scowl, the cigarette. A series of photographs from the set, not included in the final cut of the film, as well as the three shots that constitute the opening titles, show Henningsen’s spectacles framed as, precisely, spectacle, reflecting the glow of a circular fluorescent tube light.
Still from PH Light. Photographer: Peter Roos.
Throughout the film, the persona of PH is, quite literally, lit in ways that provoke reflection (pun intended) on his designs. For example, at three minutes 40, as he strolls around his living space, the intense light from the windows produces bursts of glare around his head; at eight minutes, he is silhouetted against a window blind, cigarette in hand again; and in the final shot, reading a poem about his lamps, the key lighting focused on his face is turned off, plunging him into darkness, so that the text of the poem can be superimposed in sparkling white upon his shadowy figure. Thus the film colludes in the ongoing crystallisation of a national icon, the ingenious designer of iconic national objects in their own right.
This staging of PH spills over into ironic self-referentiality. This is not confined to activating knowledge of Danish culture: the opening shots of the film show Henningsen posing with one of his lamps, cigarette in mouth, in a stance that is unmistakably reminiscent of a famous early-1960s photograph of Jean-Luc Godard in sunglasses, holding a filmstrip up to the light, a cigarette dangling from his lips. From the very beginning, PH Light thus implicates the cinéphile viewer in an ongoing, sophisticated series of in-jokes about international cinema culture, and about the role of light in film. For example, one segment of the film has to be shot in colour, because Henningsen is going to interview a friend about the working of light and colour: he introduces the sequence by declaring that a bit of colour film is needed here. ‘How good you look in colour!’ he tells his friend, the scenographer Svend Johansen. At the 15-minute mark, PH wryly comments that life is full of turning points, and now we are to return to black and white film. The key point here is that the film assumes, indeed, constructs, an audience which is not only educated enough to appreciate a fairly detailed explanation of the scientific principles behind PH’s lighting designs, but also urbane enough to catch the allusions to cinematic culture and technology. As a corollary, the same audience is presumably wealthy enough to afford to own a PH lamp.
PH Light - street lighting
Nevertheless, after a series of discussions of the behaviour of light from the perspectives of physics, painting and technological change, the film ends with a sequence which moves us outside the domestic sphere and into the street as national citizens. By way of an introduction, Henningsen explains how he was able to test a theory of his about street light in Faaborg, and later allowed to further develop the experiment on Strandgade in Copenhagen.
By contrasting two lighting scenarios – Strandgade, versus a similar street with central overhead lighting approved by the authorities – we are shown how directing light in alternate directions on both sides of the road illuminates oncoming vehicles and crossing pedestrians. Diffusing light outwards and downwards, on the other hand, fails to make other road users sufficiently visible. The impact of PH’s designs is thus expanded from their domestic utilitarian and decorative use out into the public sphere, where they enable traffic to flow rationally and safely. Quite literally, this collective lighting system allows national citizens to ‘see’ each other - an apt metaphor for Dansk Kulturfilm as an institution. Nevertheless, the picture is more complex: the struggle to gain permission and funding for such projects is alluded to here as an ongoing tension between PH’s avant-garde technology and the approval mechanisms of the state. Indeed, de Waal (1994: 16) indicates that Henningsen had been pressing in writing for similar principles since the mid-1920s.
Light and sensuality
PH Light also exploits the synergy between light and heat to nuance some of the film’s information. In this sense, it uses some of the strategies of what Laura U. Marks (2000) has dubbed ‘multisensory cinema’. While film, as an audio-visual medium, cannot communicate touch, smell and taste to us directly, it can nonetheless gesture to sources of sensory information, triggering relevant sense memories in the viewer. For Marks, nonvisual or embodied knowledge can be brought into play by, precisely, visual media; and often, bodily and sensory forms of knowledge are culturally inflected.
In the case of PH Light – and, I suspect, a great many such ‘films that work’ – an appeal to nonvisual and embodied knowledge is an integral part of the construction of the national viewer, who shares knowledge of certain culturally-contingent sensory experiences with his/her community. To live with a PH lamp is to be familiar with the quality of its light, its shape, its material and tactility, and the warmth that emanates from it when lit. There is a strong association in PH Light between temperature and light. To reconsider the construction of ‘Danish’ light as calibrated with ‘natural’ light, as discussed above, the sequence immediately following the opening credits moves us into a room filled with light, which is revealed to be PH’s study. His living space affords the possibility of communicating in visual language both the coolness of winter daylight, as the glow from the snow-covered garden is allowed at times to intensify and illuminate Henningsen’s desk. And for a short while we stop and stare into the fireplace, representing the age-old fire at the heart of the social. The generation of heat as a by-product of artificial light is then underscored by a shot in which a filament increases in temperature until it melts and breaks. In the closing sequence demonstrating PH’s designs for street lamps, the camera is lowered on a crane above a snowy street scene in which the lamplight pools in circles on the snow. The national public lighting infrastructure is thus shown embedded in the national climate, triggering a complex of associations in the viewer who has experienced the sight of street lighting on twilight streets, the temperature falling, the crunch and slipping of snow underfoot. Henningsen’s voiceover remarks that the effects of snow on the lighting system is a problem he will continue trying to solve, thus situating the solution to this geographically-specific problem firmly within the remit of the nation-state.
A sequence which employs multisensory strategies in less straightforward ways - and is no less interesting for that - occurs at 14 minutes. At this point, with the film still in colour, we enter a blacked-out space inhabited only by a selection of PH’s lamps. We move slowly under them in succession, in a movement which demonstrates how their designs eliminate downward glare from unfiltered electric light. But the reflection of light on the matte and shiny metal surfaces, the texture and shape of the plates on each lamp, the play of diffused light over the camera lens, invite us to touch. These are pendant lights, and so to be moving under them is a natural state of affairs – but we are tantalisingly held back from the lamps, moving irrevocably out of reach. Moreover, the lamp sequence follows a demonstration by Henningsen of the spectrum of colours in light, using musical scales on a piano. Light intensity and colour have thus been freshly associated with sound in the mind of the viewer. Accompanying the lamps as they sweep past is a percussion piece which seems to translate their respective light patterns into sound. The sequence as a whole thus invites a multisensory response, by blurring the boundaries between one sense and another.
This analysis of just one film, PH Light, is offered as an example of how the films of Dansk Kulturfilm do their work. A comprehensive history of the role of the short film in the service of the state exists (Alsted & Nørrested 1987), as does a catalogue of such films in Denmark (Fabjancic and Nørrested 1984), but to understand the impact of such films, we need to consider how they activate and re-negotiate shared knowledge and beliefs using the arsenal of tools available to the filmmaker. We also need to understand such films as operating not in a vacuum, but in an international cinematic ecology.
At the close of PH Light, Henningsen reads a poem by Otto Gelsted: Til en PH-Lampe (To a PH Lamp, 1926). The poem speaks of how, if one looks at a PH lamp on a grey December day, one feels that ‘the old pact between spirit and light is renewed’. As the poem suggests, PH’s life’s work was not only to illuminate homes and streets, but also, though his political engagement, to enlighten the nation. But so too does this verse provide a neat analogy for the institution of Dansk Kulturfilm and other ‘films that work’.
Suggested citation: Thomson, C. Claire (2013): Lamps, Light and Enlightment: Poul Henningensen's Denmark and Ole Roos' PH Light, Kosmorama #249 (http://www.kosmorama.org/ServiceMenu/05-English/Articles/Lamps-Light-and-Enlightenment.aspx).
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