Herbig on parade with ani 'Lissi'

'Manitou,' 'Surprise' creator takes on royal subjects

At age 10, Michael "Bully" Herbig — arguably Germany's most successful filmmaker — spent his summer vacation working on an animated film. Eventually he realized that neither his supply of colored pencils nor his patience were going to last long enough to shoot even the short subject he had in mind. So he put the project on ice for a few decades.

Three years ago, he needed an idea. He had made two cinematic blockbusters based on running sketches from his beloved comedy-variety TV series, "Bully Parade." The first hit, spaghetti-Western homage "Manitou's Shoe," was one of the top-selling German films of all time. The second was the gay sci-fi takeoff on "Star Trek" called "Dreamship Surprise," which filled theaters throughout the German-speaking world.

But there was one more running sketch that his fans wanted to see made into a movie: a parody of Germany's classic royal soap opera film trilogy, "Sissi — The Fateful Years of a Young Empress" from the 1960s.

"One morning it just came to me in the shower," Herbig said at a recent press screening of his new movie, "Lissi und der Wilde Kaiser." He would finally make his long-delayed animated film, and base it on the Sissi sketches from "Bully Parade."

The problem was, the sketches had all been about a minute long. Herbig had played Elisabeth, a real Bavarian princess born in 1837; her Austrian emperor husband Franz-Joseph was portrayed by "Bully Parade" co-star Christian Tramitz. Sissi and Franz would blithely stroll through their palace gardens chatting about the perfection of their love and the perfection of their lives — and then the orchestra would swell in the background and that would be that.

How was Herbig supposed to turn a series of sketches that, laid end to end, probably wouldn't fill a quarter of an hour — and that had ignored plot as fully as the real emperor Franz-Joseph had ignored the monarchy-hating anarchists in his realm?

To answer that question, Herbig pulled another "Bully Parade" character out of his hat. It was the Yeti, a Tibetan abominable snowman played by longtime comedic cohort Rick Kavanian in the "Bully Parade" talk-show sketch "Yeti at Noon."

"From that moment on," Herbig says, "it was clear: Sissi would be kidnapped by the Yeti. We had our plot."

As with "Manitou" and "Surprise," Herbig was making personal comedic use of well-worn material. Elisabeth of Austria was the first modern royal superstar, who not only predated Princess Diana by almost a century but who also outdid her in practically every way, from her fairy-tale marriage to her tragic royal existence and violent death.

Munich-born Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Hungary, who really called herself Lissi but who was mistakenly named Sissi in the films, was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. She was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, and statues of her are strewn throughout Europe from Madeira to Budapest. Thanks to a long and strenuous daily exercise regimen, an endless series of fad diets and the constant use of a corset, Elisabeth famously maintained a 20-inch waistline. If ever a woman lived who might have been a model for Barbie, Elisabeth would have been it.

She met Franz-Joseph on the day he was to be engaged to her older sister, and the young emperor scandalously insisted on wedding her instead. She traveled extensively, wrote volumes of poetry, and learned Greek and Hungarian. She outlived one of her daughters as well as her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, who committed suicide at 30. She was assassinated in full daylight by an anarchist in Geneva who stabbed her with a long, thin needle, piercing her heart but leaving almost no visible wound.

All of her royal residences remain tourist attractions — if not pilgrimage sites — today. Two musicals, made 60 years apart, were inspired by her life. But Herbig attributes much of her still-legendary status to the '60s trilogy that starred a teenaged Romy Schneider.

"Today those films are considered trash, but that's terribly wrong," he says. "If you wanted to produce a movie that extravagant today, you'd hardly be able to finance it."

Herbig's financing was modest by today's animated-film standards. "Let's say it was a tenth of what Pixar spends," he says slyly. But with a backstory like Elisabeth's, combined with his own surefire track record, "Lissi" might well have a shot at Germany's cinematic history books.