BERLIN - For those using Berlin's public transportation in recent weeks, it was difficult to avoid the penetrating glance of Uri Geller, which could have been directed either at them or at the teaspoon he held in his hand. The portrait of the Israeli magician stared out at passengers from large billboards advertising his new TV show, "The Next Uri Geller," which aired for the first time last week on the German commercial channel ProSieben. The premiere of the show, which is based on the popular Israeli program "Hayoresh" ("The Successor"), attracted a large audience (more than 20 percent of viewers aged 14-49 tuned in) and received particularly extensive media coverage.
On the show, 10 "mentalists," as they are called in Germany, compete for the title of Geller's successor and for a prize of 100,000 euros. Geller himself appears as a guest and displays the psychic powers that have made him famous in Europe and elsewhere - bending cutlery and repairing electrical appliances.
Many members of the country's media debated with typical German seriousness whether the paranormalist from Tel Aviv and the program's 10 contestants were experts at deception or possessors of authentic magic powers. "Is Uri Geller a wizard magician - or a charlatan?" wondered the daily Die Welt on its Web site, after Geller promised on the debut program to fix electrical appliances with his powers, via a TV set.
"I put the broken television remote control next to the set," wrote one surfer, "and after Uri Geller said in Hebrew the three magic words 'ahat, shtayim, shalosh' ('one, two, three'), the remote started working again." Other surfers and television critics accused Geller of lying.
The German network claimed during and after the broadcast that it had received a huge number of responses: more than 20,000 phone calls, letters and e-mail messages, many of them from people whose electrical appliances came back to life. Geller himself reported that 1,600 e-mail messages were sent to his handheld computer, and later announced to the press: "I've never encountered such a huge response."
Television critics were more skeptical. "The search for a successor hints at the fact that Geller will retire after the program, but that is turning out to be a false hope," suggested a writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The critic called Geller "a sad sight," and criticized the network for the air of mystery in which it casts the contestants, instead of admitting that they are chosen for their sleight-of-hand talents.
On the program's Web site, a lively discussion developed surrounding explanations of the magic tricks. Several surfers talked about the trick in which one of the contestants "stopped" his own heartbeat for half a minute. "All you have to do it stick a golf ball in the right place under your arm," explained one.
Geller, who originally captured German audiences with his television appearances in the 1970s, spoke about those appearances and the experience of returning to perform in the country. "When I landed at the Munich airport recently, customs officials asked me to bend teaspoons. They had seen me when they were children on West German TV," he said in an interview with the weekly Focus. He also mentioned that he had had eating problems and was once bulimic, and once again recounted the mystical experience he underwent in Tel Aviv at age 4, when he ate soup and discovered that his spoon had bent.
Many German newspapers also told their readers about the embarrassment of the team that had produced the Israeli program, when surfers revealed online just how Geller was able to pull a magnet out from behind his ear and held it between his fingers.
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