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A celebration of Zentropa

After 20 years, the iconic Danish production outfit Zentropa is going stronger than ever, with historical drama A Royal Affair packing out Danish cinemas and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt in Competition here in Cannes.

Zentropa, the Danish company that Lars Von Trier and Peter Aalbaek Jensen [pictured] co-founded in 1992, has reached the ripe old age of 20.

The way Aalbaek Jensen describes it, what is now one of Europe’s leading production outfits was launched in less-than-glorious circumstances.

“I was bankrupt with my first production company. I had made the biggest flop in Danish history. I was totally broke and in deep shit,” Aalbaek Jensen recalls cheerfully. “Lars was also in deep shit because he was so obnoxious and such a mean guy that nobody wanted to work with him in Denmark.”

The producer’s friends warned him against going into business with Von Trier, but he blithely ignored them. “Everybody thought it was crazy to form a company on a 50/50 basis with an artist — especially an artist who is declared insane.”

Neither partner had any money. The pair had already teamed up to make 1991’s Europa, a highly elaborate European co-production, with some support from Scandinavian major Nordisk. To their evident surprise, it proved a success. Von Trier had offers from elsewhere but decided to stay with Aalbaek Jensen. “He is a kind of medieval knight. He thought that as I had helped him when he was fucked, he didn’t want to leave me. That was probably very stupid of him because he could have been sitting in a castle in France right now if he’d bolted out of the country.”

When Zentropa was formed — it was named from the railway network featured in Europa — both partners agreed they would each receive $9,300 (€7,000) a month in salary. “We still get that. Neither of us wants the other guy to get paid better.” They made commercials in order to get the company up and running.

Twenty years on, Zentropa’s tentacles stretch all over Europe. It has offices everywhere from Scotland to Poland. “Becoming international was never any plan, never any strategy, but trying to make films out of Denmark is more or less impossible. We are 5 million people. No matter how successful you are, there is a limit to what you can make out of the local market. Especially with Lars’ product, that was impossible to get money for in Denmark. We were forced to go out into the international market. I couldn’t speak English at that time and nobody in Denmark knew how to put together a contract… we had to learn everything from scratch.”

Zentropa has had a European profile from the outset. Europa was one of the first films ever supported by Eurimages, the Council of Europe Fund that has supported many of Von Trier’s subsequent movies. However, Aalbaek Jensen acknowledges the low-budget Dogme movement of the late 1990s played a crucial part in establishing Zentropa’s international reputation.

“Without Dogme, Lars would have been the same but directors like Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg, Lone Scherfig and Kristian Levring all came out of Dogme.”

Von Trier and Aalbaek Jensen have a reputation as mischievous and maverick figures, always ready to rebel against conventional thinking and authority figures. That did not stop them from throwing in their lot with Nordisk, which bought 50% of the company in 2008. Aalbaek Jensen presents the alliance as a natural evolution. The more successful the Zentropa stable of directors became, the bigger the demands were on the company. With Nordisk’s backing, it was possible to deal with those demands. Von Trier and Aalbaek Jensen retain 12.5% each of the company, other directors and employees hold 25% between them, and Nordisk has the rest.

Aalbaek Jensen points out that Von Trier “is quite a good businessman, like all good directors… I can easily have a very fruitful conversation with him about what to do with the company in terms of strategy and where we are heading. On the other hand, he doesn’t give a shit about how it is financed, who is investing in it and where we are shooting. On the one hand, he is interested and on the other, he is only focused on his creative work.”

After two decades, the relationship between producer and director seems as strong as ever. Aalbaek Jensen suggests they are united as much by their differences as by what they have in common. “There are a hell of a lot of fights but we love each other. We have one thing in common — we have a big sense of humour. We laugh loudly five to 10 times a day and that smooths out all the differences. I’m a redneck country boy and he is a sophisticated genius. We are really two opposites, in a way.”

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