Another day, another story about workplace sexual harassment. This time we leave Hollywood and jump across the pond to the production studio Zentropa, which was co-founded by Lars von Trier in Denmark. Von Trier himself is not named in the report published by Politiken (via IndieWire). Nine women have alleged a rather horrifying work environment that fostered an environment of persistent sexual harassment and bullying.
“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 wrote a book on the production company and verified the accounts that the women are providing:
“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.”
The report goes into details about what then-CEO Peter Aalbæk Jensen allegedly did, and they speak for themselves.
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.
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.
That is quite a list of grievances, and one would think the first thing a person would do in this case would be deny, deny, deny. However, Jensen did no such thing. He either corroborates the stories as ” general or recurring rituals at Zentropa or as something he has no recollection of, but ‘probably happened.'” He said:
“I’ll say this: I have no interest in submission and degradation. I’m interested in testing boundaries, especially where the red line is.”
Apparently, in the wake of many stories having circulated about these issues over the past few weeks, last Friday management tried to put pressure on Jensen to change his management style. These changes include the stipulation that “slapping an employee’s butt as a reward or punishment” be made a thing of the past. Current CEO Anders Kjærhauge declined to comment on any specifics regarding the situation, but said:
“This does not match my perception and this picture does not correspond to the Zentropa that I know.”
Jensen says that he isn’t sure whether or not he will follow any new management policies that Zentropa could come up with.
“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.”
Like any form of sexual harassment and bullying, this has affected the people involved. This sort of behavior digs into the psyche of the victims and leaves them feeling less than human.
“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.
Other times it comes in the form of what is essentially survivor’s guilt.
“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.
These young women did absolutely nothing wrong, and the fact that they think they’re somehow complicit because they didn’t speak up says volumes about how we treat victims in this day and age. There is never a situation where the victim is at fault because they didn’t have the strength to speak out; it’s on the abusers and on the environment that continues to protect them.