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Why Original Dragon Slayer Story Is the Focus for Big Budget Fantasy Show ‘Hagen,’ Backed by Fremantle, Constantin (EXCLUSIVE)

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On Wednesday, Fremantle revealed that it had secured worldwide distribution rights, outside of German-speaking territories, to the premium fantasy drama “Hagen” — a working title — from Constantin Film. Variety spoke to Jan Ehlert, one of the producers on the show, and Jens Richter, CEO commercial and international at Fremantle, about why they backed the ambitious production, which is budgeted at around Euros 45 million ($48.8 million) and will be produced as a six-part series and a feature film for theatrical release.

“Hagen,” which is based on Wolfgang Hohlbein’s bestselling novel “Hagen von Tronje,” is a reimagining of the medieval “Nibelungen” folk saga. The story is considered to be one of the inspirations behind modern fantasies such as “Game of Thrones” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

Returning to the original “Nibelungen” saga was key to Constantin’s decision to turn the story into a premium drama, and one of the reasons why they had confidence that it would be a success.

Valkyrie Brunhild
Courtesy of Fremantle

“This is kind of an eternal story. It’s about a very interesting time in history when the narration is set, not when the ‘Nibelungen’ saga was written down, but the original saga behind it, at the end of the fifth century,” Ehlert says. “It’s basically being conveyed, on a word-of-mouth basis, between people who constantly remodel it to be the greatest story ever told, and there’s everything in there: hope and fear, love and hate, and loyalty and betrayal. Everything that moves people’s hearts. So, we thought, why not just stick with the original.”

Richter adds: “What I loved about it when we started a conversation with Constantin was this is the time of the migration of the peoples. This is the fifth century. This is the downfall of the Roman Empire when it all fell to pieces. It was like a big chess game.”

Hagen von Tronje
Courtesy of Fremantle

He says that it isn’t a solely Germanic tale but a Northern European saga: “The saga doesn’t come from a particular place. It’s a Nordic saga that came out of Europe over the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, and then at the beginning of the 13th century was written down. For me, it has a wider European perspective.”

The show centers on dutiful soldier Hagen von Tronje and Siegfried, the legendary dragon slayer. Hagen, bound by loyalty to the kingdom, is Lord Commander, ready to serve and stand by his king, Gunter. But he has a secret, he is deeply in love with Princess Kriemhild. It is a love that will never be permitted.

Siegfried, Princess Kriemhild
Courtesy of Fremantle

His world is turned upside down as the Huns threaten to invade and an unexpected guest, Siegfried, arrives. The king, determined to strengthen his kingdom, seeks a new wife, Brunhild — the famous Valkyrie queen, who has old magic powers.

To secure her hand, the king requires the help of both Siegfried and Hagen. A dramatic and ultimately catastrophic series of events unfold in this sweeping tale of love, power, family and war delivered with cinematic production values.

Richter says: “What I really, really love is this dragon slayer character that came out of this saga, and we find later in books and TV shows like ‘Game of Thrones,’ in all kinds of movies, from animation to Hollywood movies, the dragon slayer character is fascinating and comes back in all shapes and forms. Now we are going back to the original story. This is the first legend of a dragon slayer ever told, and to go back to that root, I find that is absolutely fascinating.”

Valkyrie Brunhild, King Gunter
Courtesy of Fremantle

The project is unlike anything else on the market, according to Richter. “I think for us, what’s fascinating is the epic scale. A lot of today’s television is current. And a lot of today’s television is current crime. And we play in that space, we like that, it’s fine. And the other thing is, today’s television becomes more and more mainstream. So, if you want to go away from the mainstream current crime, then the perfect angle is to go really world building, to create something unique, something that you haven’t seen, and when we speak to broadcasters and platforms now the question always is: How can I cut through? How can I reach my audience? It’s a dragon slayer. It’s the original dragon slayer. It can’t be much easier than this. And the money is on the screen. The production value is amazing. It’s really about the cut through.”

In some people’s eyes, there’s a link between the “Nibelungen” saga and the Nazis through Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung.” How will Richter approach that subject if it comes up? “Well, if that subject were to come up, we’re not doing Wagner, we’re doing the original ‘Nibelungen’ saga. There were several sagas that popped up around the same period of time. It’s a Northern European saga, so it’s much wider where it comes from, that’s one thing. And the other thing is, it is really the downfall of the biggest empire that was. It’s a really interesting period of time that we haven’t seen yet. And Nazis might have referred to Wagner, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We essentially are talking about the downfall of an empire, so it’s a very different story.”

The show’s directors are Cyrill Boss and Philipp Stennert, whose most recent series is Sky’s “Pagan Peak.” The script was written by Boss, Stennert and Doron Wisotzky. Ehlert says they had been looking to produce a big scale project with Boss and Stennert for several years, and “Hagen” seemed an ideal project for them.

“When we first met with them, we instantly clicked because we were so very much aligned about what this can be in today’s television and theatrical worlds. From the first conversations, we were very confident that they were the right people for the job when it comes to world creation and everything you need to make this spectacular. Also, we wanted to work with the greatest creative staff that you can get in Germany, given the heads of departments, like for costume design and set design and obviously makeup and hair. These are big topics for us and Cyrill and Philipp are very well connected with this level of creative. So very quickly we had a really great team behind the camera.”

The fantasy and supernatural elements existed in the original story but the approach is different in the show, Ehlert says: “I wouldn’t say it’s more or less but we tried to have a more modern approach to dealing with mystery and magic. We tried to make the approach a bit more accessible for a modern audience.”

Gijs Naber (“Blackbook,” “The Story of My Wife”) will star as protagonist Hagen, alongside Jannis Niewöhner (“Amazon’s Beat,” “Munich”) as his antagonist Siegfried. Lilja van der Zwaag will play Princess Kriemhild, Rosalinde Mynster will appear as Valkyrie Brunhild, while Dominic Marcus Singer takes on the role of King Gunter.

Speaking of the casting, Ehlert says: “Given all the expectations that come when you deal with a story like that, we tried to avoid the existing cliches, only to find and define new ones, because this story is being told in stereotypes, since it’s a story that has been conveyed by word-of-mouth. We tried to find characters that were different from the existing stereotypes, and that were not per se a German cast or a U.K. cast or whatever way you could label a cast, we just tried to find a very unique set of characters. It was character casting, basically, and that was part of the world creation process.”

The casting of Siegfried, who is protected from harm in battle as he has bathed in dragon’s blood, was key. “While Hagen is more like the voice of reason, Siegfried is more like a gut feeling kind of guy. He can be very warm hearted, but he has a tendency to substance abuse, he fights like a madman … well, he is invulnerable, so he can do that. He’s like a rock star, basically, with all the light, but also all the shadow,” Ehlert says.

The producers on “Hagen” are Ehlert, Christoph Müller and Christian Rohde, with Filip Hering co-producing. Martin Moszkowicz and Oliver Berben of Constantin Film act as executive producers. Thomas Disch and Nico Grein have editorial responsibility on behalf of RTL under the direction of Hauke Bartel, head of fiction at RTL Germany.