Behind the scenes at the Passion Play of Oberammergau
It all started with a plague, a vow, and a seeming miracle. Nearly 400 years later, the inhabitants of this small Bavarian village are still fulfilling the promise their ancestors made to God
By Julie Rattey
It’s October 26, 2009, and German director Christian Stückl is understandably harried. In just over one month, on November 28, the first rehearsal of the Oberammergau Passion Play, a decennial event that brings in approximately a half million visitors each performance season, will take place before a host of journalists from around the globe. Two days prior, he will open a play in Munich — “Hamlet.”
Having just wrangled with “to be or not to be” during rehearsal, Stückl sits down to a cappuccino at the café of the Münchner Volkstheater, the theater he manages in Munich. He has the familiar, buzzing energy of the overworked but enthusiastic director, speaking with vitality and numerous hand gestures. One gets the impression both that Stückl doesn’t get much sleep these days, and that the fatigue is a small price to pay for telling the story of Jesus’ final days. Not even Shakespeare, he says, can compete.
“‘Hamlet’ is a big story for actors and for every director,” he says, “but the Passion play is the biggest story of our history.” He pauses, acknowledging the enormity of his task. “But sometimes I have to not think about it.”
The village of Oberammergau, located in the foothills of the Alps in the highly Catholic state of Bavaria, Southeast Germany, has spent a lot of time thinking about the Passion play. Three-hundred and seventy-five years, to be exact.
In 1633, Bavaria was suffering from war, famine, and plague. Believing the contemporary saying that “war, pestilence, and famine are the three scourges of God,” the villagers of Oberammergau made a solemn vow: Every 10 years, they would perform a Passion play depicting the final week of Jesus’ life, including his Resurrection. The plague-related deaths ceased, and, with the exception of intervening world events (such as in 1940 with World War II), the villagers have kept their vow ever since.
2010 marks the 41st production. About 1,300 villagers will perform a five-hour show more than 100 times from May to October in one of the largest open-air theaters in Europe. But for many villagers, some of whom trace their local ancestry back to the 17th century, the play is not just a theatrical tradition, but a social and cultural one. Here, people often measure their life events — when they built their house, got married, or had their children — in terms of the Passion play. And people are often willing to go to great lengths to win a coveted role. Before 1990, when only unmarried or widowed women under age 35 could participate, it was not unheard of for a young woman to delay marriage for the chance of playing Mary or Mary Magdalene. Some even speculate that the dip in mortality rates in the years around the play season is actually due to the villagers’ intense desire to participate: Those nearing the end of life seem to hold out as long as possible just to be involved.
Stefanie Kalbl, a 90-year-old villager who first performed in the play in 1930, puts it well: “All the people live with the play always.”
Those who have been born in Oberammergau or have lived there for at least 20 years (except children who move to the area, and members of the orchestra) are permitted to take part. And they don’t have to be professional actors. This year, students, merchants, woodcarvers, foresters, a dentist, and various other professions are represented onstage. One of the two actors playing Jesus is a psychologist; one playing Mary Magdalene is a flight attendant. Anyone who meets the qualifications may participate, which explains why the play is so famous for its crowd scenes, with up to 1,000 people onstage at a time.
Organizing all those performers to tell the final days of Jesus’ life is a monumental task for a director, so it’s fortunate that Stückl is a professional, as well as someone who loves the play so much that, as an 8-year-old participant, he was often dragged offstage by the ear for sneaking into extra scenes during rehearsal.
“It’s the biggest challenge [presenting] Jesus the right way,” he says. As in years past, he’s spending time with Jewish and Christian leaders, theological advisers, and scholars as he revises the script and otherwise prepares the production.
There are a few things about Jesus that Stückl is particularly keen to get across: his commitment to God’s path, for instance. His humanity. His invitation to draw us close to Him. The fact that his words have meaning for this world, not just for the next. Also, in keeping with the play’s recent history of trying to address concerns about anti-Semitism, Stückl is again this year emphasizing Jesus’ Judaism through gestures such as placing a menorah on the table used in the Last Supper. “He was born a Jew, he lived as a Jew, he died as a Jew on the Cross,” Stückl stresses. “It’s important to tell a story with good news. And if we tell the story in a way that says, ‘We are the good Christians and they are the bad Jews,’ we’re telling a bad story.”*
About half the town, or 2,500 people, are involved in some part of telling that story. Even those who don’t take part are affected, right down to local barbers like Gaby Daisenberger, who sees a slump when villagers start growing out hair and beards for the production, then a flood of business once the play’s over and they line up to get rid of them.
It’s a phenomenal amount of work for everyone — large sets to build; hundreds of costumes to be made, dyed, and “aged”; actors to train, a choir of 100 people to rehearse. It can be a stressful time, an insanely busy time (especially as many participants are attending school or working during the six months of evening rehearsals and performing the shows), and, occasionally, a time of division. Casting can sometimes lead to jealousy or resentment, especially when someone’s decade-long hopes of being the next Judas or Mary Magdalene have just been dashed. In addition, everyone has an idea about how to make the best out of the play, which can lead to conflicts, explains Andrea Hecht, an artist and one of the two actresses playing Mary. But by the time the play starts, she adds, people are coming together.
“It’s fascinating to see with how much passion the Oberammergau people are working for the Passion play,” says Weronika Demuschewski, a non-resident and assistant in the production’s press office. “This is a village where tradition is lived.”
Tradition is in evidence not just in the Passion play, but in other aspects of life — from the occasional villager sporting a feathered Alpine hat, to the neighborly greetings of “Grüsse Gott” (“Greetings in God’s name”), to the shops full of beautiful woodcarvings, descendants of a 500-year-old tradition still thriving today. It’s a place where, like his father and grandfather before him, a man might spend his life not just carving wood generally, but carving sheep.
With such a picturesque atmosphere, one might be tempted to imagine Oberammergau as a place free of cares or heartache. But behind the quaint wood-and-stone houses dripping with flowers and painted with biblical and fairy-tale images are real people with real struggles. Here, just as elsewhere, a loved one can slip into addiction, parishioners can spread gossip about who might be having an affair with whom, and, if you spend the night drinking a little too much Bavarian beer, everyone knows it by morning.
Nor does the Passion play necessarily ensure a thriving faith life or faith community. “To participate in the Passion play is not automatically to participate in the life of the Church,” says Father Peter Lederer, the town’s Catholic priest. Although the town is steeped in the Gospels more so than the average town, he says, it is not exempt from the low church attendance that afflicts the country at large (under 15 percent). In his book, The Passion Play 2000: Oberammergau, Christian Stückl acknowledges that some of the participants may question their faith or may have turned away from the Church altogether. The Passion play is not a missionary work, he is quick to point out, and what brings the people of Oberammergau together every 10 years is not the superior faith of the villagers, but the story of Jesus Himself.
“For me it’s like a living religious experience,” says 29-year-old Frederick Mayet, one of the two actors playing Jesus. “You have a feeling of being closer to the story.”
Being closer to the story enables the actors to dispel generalizations about the people they portray. Carsten Lück, a carpenter and set builder who in 1990 was the first Protestant to receive a major role in the play, was thrilled to be cast as Judas in 2000 and 2010. One sunny November morning, Lück took a break from working on the Passion play set to talk about his part. With his beard, small gold earring, and red-gold hair held in place by a broad red fabric band, it’s not hard to picture him in a heroic German legend.
“Every man in Oberammergau wants to play [Judas],” says Lück. “But it’s also a very difficult role, because for the whole world Judas usually is the bad guy, and we want to show that he’s not the bad guy; he made a big mistake.”
Making Jesus seem like a real person and not just a far-off deity is one of the tasks Mayet will contend with. When Mayet was younger, he says he thought of Jesus as more God than man. “But when we acted (in the Passion play),” he says, “He got more of a human face.”
Several actors note that doing the play sparks questions about their faith. For the play’s deputy director, Otto Huber, the play urges him to reconsider questions like, “Why did Jesus allow Himself to die?” and “What does Jesus’ sacrifice mean to us today?”
“Maybe without the Passion play,” he muses, “I would have given up for a time on these questions. But the Passion play always pushes you to find answers.”
Like the village of Oberammergau itself, the Passion play is a living tradition that maintains its heritage while adapting as discoveries are made. And that is something that’s possible even with a story that’s 2,000 years old.
“You never have an end with Jesus,” says Stückl. “There are always new questions.” CD
Photos from the 2000 production of the Oberammergau Passion Play. To see photos from the 2010 production, beginning in May, visit http://www.oberammergau-passion.com/en-gb/photo-and-video/pictures/passion-play-2010/slideshow-passion-play-2010.html
*The complicated history of Jewish-Christian relations with regard to the Oberammergau Passion Play cannot be done justice in this short article. Readers who would like to explore this topic may be interested in reading books such as James Shapiro’s Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play, which attempts to explore both sides of the debate.
Photos: Thomas Dashuber/Oberammergau Passion Play 2010