Vikings land on German shores

'Bully' Herbig looks to cast a film, make stars with reality talent search

Call it "German Cinema Idol." When Germany's most successful commercial filmmaker, Michael "Bully" Herbig, needed a 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 box-office 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 in April 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, hard-nosed film producer Rita Serra-Roll. 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 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 free-standing poles that stand in for the main mast.

Then each team performs a comedy sketch for the jury, which decides who will make it to the next round. The final show will pair the finalists for each role in a head-to-head showdown.

Despite similarities to other talent shows — including likable candidates who are put through a series of wringers —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 a diving board and you might have an idea about why "Strong Men" hasn't exactly stormed the TV charts here like the "Idol" franchise has.

But the show is certainly generating awareness for the movie. And that, after all, is pretty much the point. (partialdiff)