Commentary: Germany filmmaker does 'American Idol' search for cast

Michael 'Bully' Herbig doing nationwide hunt

MUNICH -- Call it German Cinema Idol.

When Germany's most successful commercial filmmaker, Michael "Bully" Herbig, needed a new marketing twist to promote his latest project, he decided to capitalize on the country's craze for "American Idol"-style talent shows and set up a national televised search for the film's cast.

The idea was a master stroke for a director whose marketing moxie is, within the industry, almost as legendary as his boxoffice success. Herbig's new film, "Vicky and the Strong Men," is a live-action adventure based on the 1970s animated series "Vicky the Viking," about a clever Viking boy and a pack of mighty but dim-witted adult warriors.

While the series remains a classic in Germany, the film will feature a cast of unknowns. By casting the show on TV, Herbig aims to make those nobodies household names.

The show, "Bully Seeks the Strong Men," a series of six two-hour weekly episodes co-produced by Herbig's company HerbX films, premiered April 15 on commercial channel ProSieben. There were 4,400 applicants for the six open parts of adult Vikings Faxe, Tjure, Snorre, Ulme, Urobe and Gorm. (Herbig cast Vicky, the young star, off camera.)

Shooting on the film will start in mid-July.

"You can't compare this with other talent shows," HerbX promotion agent Ilona Huettersen says, "because we are really casting a movie by Germany's most popular director."

The show's jury consists of Herbig, well-known actor Juergen Vogel and sexy but hard-nosed film producer Rita Serra-Roll (who cast Herbig's "Manitu's Shoe," the highest-grossing German film of all time). Each week they put the contestants through their paces and select six more aspiring thespians, one for each role up for grabs.

Because the "Strong Men" are beloved figures from the TV series, the finalists have to resemble the cartoon characters. All the skinny, spacey looking ones, for instance, are up for the part of Gorm, while the heavyweight pork lovers are auditioning for the role of dragon-eater Faxe.

In a stroke of reality TV smarts, Herbig has made teams out of each group of actors contending for a role. The Gorms' T-shirts are size M, while the Faxe team wears XXXL. The would-be movie stars are sent to comedy coaches and diving instructors (because, at the end of the day, sometimes even Vikings have to abandon ship).

The Ulmes get singing lessons, the Faxes get stage-fighting lessons and the Gorms have to climb 26-foot-high free-standing poles to prove they can do lookout duty atop the main mast.

Then each team performs a comedy sketch for the jury, which decides who will make it to the next round and who will return from his 15 minutes of fame to his local community theater. The final show, broadcast live, pits the final two contestants for each role in a head-to-head showdown.

Like other talent shows, "Strong Men" has likable candidates gaining sympathy by being put through a series of wringers -- and the usual suspense of who will make it versus those who will be disappointed.

But there are some differences, the most obvious being that the jury is quite a bit more physically attractive than the contenders. Imagine four men with the same body-mass index as John Goodman stripped down to bathing suits and jumping in slow motion off the high diving board and you might have an idea about why "Strong Men" hasn't exactly stormed the TV charts in Germany like the "Idol" and "Next Top Model" franchises have.

But the show is certainly generating awareness for the movie, slated for release in 2009. And that, after all, is pretty much the whole point.