The famous swimming pool at Zentropa where Peter Aalbæk has been swimming naked at several parties
Foto: Louise Herrche Serup

The famous swimming pool at Zentropa where Peter Aalbæk has been swimming naked at several parties

Kultur

Former Zentropa employees expose system of degradation and sexual harassment

Nine women relate their experiences with the toxic working culture perpetrated and perpetuated by Lars von Trier collaborator and founder of Zentropa, Peter Aalbæk Jensen. Sexual harassment, degradation and bullying of mainly female employees have been an ingrained part of the renowned film company for decades. »I’m interested in testing boundaries«.

Kultur

For over twenty years the film company Zentropa has dominated the Danish film culture, owing to its size, creativity and cinematic innovation. One of the largest film production companies in Scandinavia, Zentropa has been honoured with some of the most prestigious awards from Cannes, Berlin and Hollywood.

But within the walls of the Zentropa studio complex, known as the Film City, located in the Copenhagen suburb Avedøre, systematic degradation and sexual harassment have long been part of the work environment for many employees, both higher-ranking and trainees, whostay with the company for three years as part of the so-called Smaatte education.

In detailed testimonials, nine women have told their stories to Politiken, and the information has been confirmed by a number of other former employees’ observations, experiences and accounts. All the former employees have worked in the Film City in Avedøre and worked under founder and former CEO, Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who is highlighted by several sources one of the main figures perpetuating the system ofdegradation.

Several sources have decided to come forward.

»I think that everyone who has been employed by Zentropa has been exposed to or witnessed certain things. Both sexually charged acts and bullying or ‘teasing’. All of this was an ingrained part of the culture«, says Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen, who worked as a producer for Zentropa from 2006 to 2010 on, among other things, Lars von Trier’s ’Antichrist’ and ’Melancholia’.

Writer and journalist Anna Mette Lundtofte worked for three years at Zentropa before publishing her book ‘Zentropia’ in 2013. She verifies the overall picture that emerges on the basis of the women’s accounts. Before working on her book, she lived in New York where she would champion Danish equality and the notion of strong Danish women. But the situation was much different when she started working for Zentropa.

»When I came back, I started working for Zentropa. Here I saw women being degraded. According to the Zentropa propaganda, I would be part of an ‘alternative work culture’, but in reality, I encountered an old-fashioned, patriarchal power structure«, she says.

Former employees have told Politiken about their experiences with then-CEO Peter Aalbæk Jensen, which they found to cross the line. He would grope their breasts time and again. Get close and start moaning while they were on the phone. Ask them to lie across the table or his knee and get spanked. According to the women’s testimonials, Peter Aalbæk Jensen even arranged several sexually degrading acts on stage at the company Christmas party in front of guests from the film industry.

I have moved on, but I would never recommend anyone to work there

Awards were handed out to the trainee who undressed the fastest and the one with the longest pubic hair, which would be measured on stage in front of the audience. Furthermore, he organized a game where female employees and trainees took turns pulling out sex toys from a bag, after which he would make suggestions as to their uses. He even sent young female trainees out to fetch nipple clamps or demanded that they vaccinate his pigs.

Zentropa management demands changes

Peter Aalbæk Jensen corroborates the stories, either as general or recurring rituals at Zentropa or as something he has no recollection of, but »probably happened«. At the same time he is upset about Zentropa being described as a place of harassment where the degrading acts were systematic.

»I’ll say this: I have no interest in submission and degradation. I’m interested in testing boundaries, especially where the red line is«, says Peter Aalbæk

Friday afternoon the Zentropa management put pressure on Peter Aalbæk Jensen, demanding that changes were made to the work culture. Specifically, the management states that »slapping an employee’s butt as a reward or punishment« must be made a thing of the past. This comes as a reaction to the many stories that have circulated for the past weeks about Peter Aalbæk’s management style.

Artiklen fortsætter efter annoncen

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Current CEO, Anders Kjærhauge, makes no mention of what changes will be made specifically and he declines commenting on the documentation related to the Zentropa work environment.

»This does not match my perception and this picture does not correspond to the Zentropa that I know«, he says.

Peter Aalbæk Jensen refuses to promise that he will follow the new policy formulated by the Zentropa management.

»My future actions will reveal whether I decide to follow the new policy«, he says, adding that he believes there is nothing inherently wrong with his management practice.

»There have been plenty of times when I’ve been over the top or gone too far. And I stand by that fully. But the question is whether you are an adored leader or not.  And I am an adored leader«, says Peter Aalbæk.

The sexualized and degrading work environment has left marks, the former female employees tell Politiken. At least five sources maintain that Peter Aalbæk’s behaviour and the environment at Zentropa caused them to no longer want to work in the film industry. Many of them have experienced a psychological aftershock.

»It makes you feel inferior, and in addition to that you have been put down by Peter Aalbæk«, says 32-year-old Julie, who has asked to have her last name omitted. She was employed at Zentropa as a trainee from 2012 to 2014.

»I have moved on, but I would never recommend anyone to work there«, she says.

Artiklen fortsætter efter annoncen

Annonce

Several sources note how hard it is to say no while working at Zentropa. And after leaving Zentropa, many feel they should have taken a stand and objected to some of things they saw.

»I wish I had drawn the line more often and said: No, that’s not okay. No, it’s not okay to ask young women to show up and wait tables wearing Bunny costumes. It is not okay to ask people to get undressed and jump in the pool. No, I don’t need to see my boss do the helicopter trick during a meeting«, says Stine Meldgaard, who worked as an assistant to producers and later as a producer at Zentropa from 2006 to 2010.

Chairman of the board at Zentropa and CEO of Nordisk Film, Allan Hansen, declined to comment on the story.

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