‘We kept our beards’: Oberammergau’s passion play emerges from pandemic
From his perch in the orchestra pit of the Oberammergau stage, Christian Stückl nods and points to his players above, trying to offer them helpful instructions as their dress rehearsal to a half-full house of mainly local people gets under way.
“It is hard to believe we’ve got this far. I keep waiting for something to go wrong, but apart from a couple of older men forgetting their lines there’s really nothing to complain about,” the director says at the end of the five-and-a-half-hour show.
The villagers of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps are in a state of excitement. Their “passion play” – which in 1633 their forebears vowed to God they would stage every 10 years if they were spared further deaths from the plague (they were) – is back again after having been thrown off its usual schedule by two years owing to the latest pandemic.
Depicting the life, persecution, death and resurrection of Jesus, the 42nd season of what is believed to be the oldest continuous running amateur theatre production in the world will open on Saturday with a 103-performance run until October.
The play is the village’s raison d’etre. It is taken for granted that almost every one of the 5,200 residents who is eligible, from babies to nonagenarians, plays a part either on or off the stage. All children are allowed, as is anyone who has lived in the village for 20 years or more.
“The last time we had to delay was 100 years ago, due to the Spanish flu, as well as deaths and injuries from the first world war, after which it was rescheduled for 1922,” Stückl says. “Pandemics and the passion play have a certain tradition.”
Despite misgivings over whether it would be able to go ahead, the usual decree went out on Ash Wednesday last year, forbidding male participants from cutting their hair or shaving their beards until the production closed the following October.
“It was hard for us to believe until recently that it would actually go ahead as the coronavirus infection rate had exploded, but most of us stuck to the rules and didn’t cut our beards in the hope it still would,” said Werner Richter, a taxi driver who has taken part in every production since 1970. His grandchildren are among the 400 youngsters on stage and his son, Andreas, a former Jesus and a psychologist by profession, has one of the lead roles as the high priest Caiaphas.
About 400 players who had signed up to take part in 2020 were forced to drop out, some due to changing life plans, others owing to their refusal to be vaccinated or to take a daily test. The Catalan donkey Sancho, on whose back Jesus was due to ride into Jerusalem, has gone into retirement, replaced by the younger Aramis.
“But luckily we have continuity where it matters, as most of those in the 42 lead roles have stuck with it,” Stückl says.
The pandemic aside, his main challenge ever since becoming director at the age of 24 in 1990 has been to retain the existing but ageing audience while pushing the boundaries of the conservative Bavarian Catholic perspective he has often viewed as limited.
He describes his biggest mission as trying to rid the passion play of the antisemitic view that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, for which it was especially instrumentalised in the Nazi era with Hitler visiting twice.
“We are in constant and deep dialogue with religious representatives now,” Stückl says. In 2010 he depicted Jesus lifting the Torah as the choir sang a version of the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, considered a high point of the play by participants and spectators. This year there is a new musical setting in Hebrew of Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”) by the music director Markus Zwink, which is to be released internationally on a recording of the entire two-hour soundtrack for the first time.
The cast is also more diverse this year than it has ever been, including refugee children and Muslim actors in lead roles. In the context of the play’s history this is a radical move, and Stückl points out the storm that erupted in 1990 when he let a Protestant on to the stage for the first time – triggering a petition by the local priest that 1,800 people signed, hoping to push the director out. He is also working on how to boost the role of women (married women over 35 were unable to take part until a court ruling 32 years ago). “The production is very overladen with men,” he admits. “But then it is a very male-laden story.” He has considerably expanded the time spent on the stage by Jesus’s mother, Mary, as well as Veronica, who wipes his face, and Mary Magdalene, considered to be his closest female follower, and he has introduced the role of Pilate’s wife, previously mentioned only by a male servant who voiced her objection over Jesus’s treatment.
In his dressing room backstage at the 5,200-seat theatre, 41-year-old Frederik Mayet, who alternates playing Jesus with another actor, shows some of his props and aids. There is a climbing belt that fits beneath his loin cloth and keeps him fastened safely to the cross during the crucifixion scene, and a menacing-looking crown of thorns with blunted spikes. Outside, leaning against the wall, is the three-metre grey wooden crucifix itself, all 90kg of it, which he must carry. “It is as heavy as it looks,” he jokes. For Mayet – whose family first participated in the play in 1890 and whose children, three and eight, are with him on stage – the perennial question, as it is for most Oberammergauers, is how to ensure the play remains relevant.
“As a community our passion for the play and our courage to believe in it is unabated,” he says. “Fundamentally the story for me is less about the theological details and more about emphasising its relevance to our experience of being human.”
Mayet also played Jesus in 2010. “But now the world is a different place,” he says, referring in particular to the effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the increasing displacement of people and mounting ecological disaster. This time his Jesus is – under Stückl’s direction – “more political, more angry, someone looking for social justice.” He has sought inspiration, he says, everywhere he can find it.
It is thanks to the entrepreneur excursion salesman Thomas Cook, who discovered the play for himself in 1880 and began selling passion play package tours, that it has such a big following abroad. Its single biggest set of fans are from the US.
But this year the war in Ukraine has already put off tens of thousands of Americans, who have cancelled their trips to Europe. To make up the shortfall, the call has gone out to Germans to come to discover the play.
Otherwise the focus in the village is on getting through unscathed to October. The biggest dread, widely voiced, is that both Jesuses go down with coronavirus at the same time.
Stückl says when it is over he will go on retreat to an ashram in India, “happy to get Jesus out of my head”.
Janina Nowotka, a hairdresser, says she’ll be waiting for the queues of men outside her salon. “They are desperate to get their hair cut by then,” she says. “They come in and are given a beer and the mood is jovial and festive. And those that can’t wait just stand on the street and lop each other’s hair off.”