TELEVISON: Soapy Dreams

Early evening series like »Marienhof« have hooked German teenagers. The youngsters taking part in these shows have already learned one lesson: a stomach flu is not going to holp up the tight shooting schedule.

Tanja Mairhofer just wants to go back to bed. It's hard enough getting through her first on-screen kiss with a crowd milling about, watching every move she makes. On top of that, though, she is suffering from a heavy bout of stomach flu, wracking her with nausea.

Nevertheless, her lips bravely approach the face of her partner, Giovanni. It's only been a week since Tanja joined the main cast of the daily soap »Marienhof,« but she has already learned one lesson: a stomach flu is not going to hold up the tight shooting schedule. So she pulls herself together and puckers her lips until the director's »thank you« delivers her from her misery. Luckily, her role as pharmacist's daughter Sophie has her playing an ugly duckling, so »it's okay when I don't look exactly radiant,« she says.

Discipline is one of the most important prerequisites for a soap star. Each working day of the week, a team of 150 people produces one 25-minute episode of the late afternoon series »Marienhof« in the Bavaria Studios in Munich. That doesn't leave much time for airs and graces or for polishing each individual scene. A short blocking of the positions for the cameras, a general rehearsal of the text and then »action.«

Tanja's on-screen brother, Johannes Raspe, had to get used to the fact that it's all about speed rather than art. Before his soap debut, the 24-year-old had been doing voice-overs for Hollywood movies and American sitcoms. »There you have to think about every individual sentence,« he says. At »Marienhof,« things are rather different. »Everything is more improvised. At the beginning you muse about how to act a part, but in the end the only important thing is that you get the content across,« he says.

That doesn't mean the storylines are simple, though: »A lot is going to happen« is the motto of the soap. In fact, the characters in »Marienhof« experience just about everything that can befall the human race - apart, perhaps, from the eruption of a volcano. This complex-situation format goes over well in Germany, with some half-a-dozen shows built around such themes. It was a revolutionary move in 1985, when »Lindenstraße,« the first such soap, started, and critics prophesized an early death. Instead, audiences became addicted to the everyday stories focused on the denizens of a Munich street. »Lindenstraße« polarized the nation and still serves as an object of love or loathing.

»Marienhof« has been flickering over German TV screens for seven years now, with about 2000 episodes having been produced. Despite their slow pace, stilted dialogue and sometimes rather outrageous plotlines, daily soaps hold a prominent place in the way public opinion is influenced in Germany. Topics that move the nation are quickly integrated into the current plots, and taboo subjects like AIDS and homosexuality are often shown for the first time on television in the daily soaps. The show with the highest viewing percentage, »Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten« - »Good Times, Bad Times« - can even pride itself on having the chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, play a cameo role in a quest for the hearts of future voters.

Because the heroes could be your own neighbours, a lot of viewers feel they should take over a part in the soap themselves. Silke Klug-Bader, the casting director of »Marienhof,« says she has stopped counting the applications piled on her desk, since every day she gets tons of letters from young hopefuls looking for big parts. »A lot of people build up false hopes,« she says. Be-cause of the high pressure during production, amateurs don?t stand much of a chance - which makes it very difficult to cast younger parts. With Tanja, the casting boss was lucky: The 26-year-old looks so young she can pass for 17.

At first, based on Tanja's casting photos, Silke Kluge-Baader thought the girl was too pretty for the role of the ugly duckling. But then Tanja showed up without makeup for her appointment, thinking that such a large production would definitely have a makeup department. Their wasn't one, however, for the casting call. Tanja had to face the selection committe as pale as she was and promptly got the part because of her »great mutability.«

Tanja has already had practice making herself look different, a talent she developed while working as a presenter for the music television station Viva2. »When I just do not feel like being recognized, I simply make myself inconspicuous,« she says. That's quite useful, considering the hype surrounding the soap actors, whose pictures fill teenager magazines.

Felix zu Knyphausen, the third new face in »Marienhof,« has already gotten a fair taste of the hysteria. While the 32-year-old is posing for a photograph outside the production hall, a train packed with fans touring the Bavaria studios drives past. A few 15-year-old girls spot the actor and promptly start screaming - despite the fact that his TV debut is still a few weeks off. The actor reacts with acute bewilderment, then he pulls himself together, produces an uncertain smile and waves at his future fans, promptly triggering off another round of shrieks.

An eerie phenomenon, thinks Johannes, who has already been asked for autographs because he has »a typical soap face.« So far, he does not really know whether to enjoy the attention, although he has started checking his hairstyle in the window panes on the set when no one is looking. One never knows when the next fan might come along.

Andrea Benda, 28, has also been asked for her autograph by a group of teenagers and is now worried about whether she has a »soap face« as well

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