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Germany’s Covid-delayed 389-year-old Passion Play brings half a million visitors to a village, as a cast of 1,800 fulfils a promise made during plague

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 15/5/2022 Peter Neville-Hadley
  • Oberammergau in Germany has been putting on the play every 10 years since 1633, fulfilling a promise made during an outbreak of the plague
  • It is one of the oldest package tourist attractions, after Thomas Cook promoted the play in 1880, and now adds Covid-19 to the list of diseases it has survived

This year, for the 42nd time in nearly four centuries, much of the population of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau will skip school or take time off work to perform a Passion Play - a staging of the story of the last days of Jesus Christ.

During over 100 performances from May to October the play will bring half a million visitors to a village of 5,000 people, in what has become both one of Europe's greatest pilgrimages. No religion is required for visitors to appreciate the vast spectacle, with its live orchestra and cast of 1,800 on an open-air stage of CinemaScope width.

The once-a-decade production is as much a part of the fabric of the village as the centuries-old wooden mansions that line its streets.

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In 1633, with 20 per cent of Oberammergau's population already lost to the plague, the remaining villagers prayed with one voice. Spare us, they said, and every 10 years we'll perform Jesus' story. There were no further deaths and the village has honoured its side of the bargain ever since.

The frescoes on the Pilatushaus in Oberammergau indicate that several members of the family living here play the role of Pontius Pilate in the Passion Play. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley © Provided by South China Morning Post The frescoes on the Pilatushaus in Oberammergau indicate that several members of the family living here play the role of Pontius Pilate in the Passion Play. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley

But what was supposedly effective against one malady proved no protection against another, and Covid cancelled the 2020 season shortly before opening, a huge setback for a community whose life, socially and economically, revolves around preparation and performance.

Nearly a third of the village is involved in some way or other, and if the owner of your cosy guest house is too busy dealing with the influx of Passion Play visitors, his wife is in the choir, and his daughter is taking tickets.

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Occasionally the orchestra may lack a particular instrument, and someone must be brought in from outside, and this year a stronger donkey was borrowed from a neighbouring village, and the camels from about 50km (80 miles) away. But the general rule is that to participate you must have been born in Oberammergau, or have lived there for at least 20 years.

The youngest performer may be only a few months old, brought onstage in her mother's arms, and the oldest this year is 96. Children who take part in crowd scenes one decade may become a servant at the Last Supper the next, and perhaps an apostle the decade after that.

The constant preparation for future productions means the village supplies Germany with a disproportionately large number of professionals in various performance-related arts.

An interloper waits for mummy to finish singing in the choir. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley © Provided by South China Morning Post An interloper waits for mummy to finish singing in the choir. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley

Almost a third of the five-hour show is musical. The orchestra is vigorous and precise, the choir powerful, and the solo voices persuasive. As for the actors, anyone may catch the eye of director Christian StUckl, Oberammergau-born but well known throughout German-speaking Europe. His approach to casting resembles that of Jesus acquiring apostles, touching villagers on the shoulder and saying, "Follow me."

"I go through the village the whole year with my casting filter on," he says. "I go into a coffee shop on the main road and a boy is sitting there. I sit and drink my coffee and I say, 'Your voice is very good. Come with me into the theatre.' And from that day he is part of my theatre group."

The text is both ancient and written yesterday. For centuries, monks from local monasteries would produce a new approved draft every decade, but this changed when Oberammergau became one of the earliest package-tourism destinations.

Oberammergau-born Christian StUckl is directing the Passion Play for the fourth time. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley © Provided by South China Morning Post Oberammergau-born Christian StUckl is directing the Passion Play for the fourth time. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley

An English newspaper critic stumbled upon the show in 1850, and in 1880 one Thomas Cook, the famous travel company founder, decided that this was something he could market to British audiences, prodding the community into building an arched auditorium big enough to seat almost the entire village at one time, so his clients wouldn't get wet. He insisted that foreign visitors wanted consistency, so for 80 years the costumes and text remained the same.

But under StUckl, now directing his fourth season, there's been considerable revision, with the removal of many anti-Semitic terms, an increased profile for the few female parts, and a reconsideration of how Jesus should be presented.

Frederik Mayet, who never had any ambition to play the leading role, is surprised at 42 to find himself as Jesus for the second time. Such repeats are unusual, but he is in a position to make direct comparisons between Jesus in 2010, and Jesus in 2022. Even backstage our conversation is interrupted by people wanting to touch the hem of his garment, in the modern form of taking a selfie with him.

A scene from the play. Photo: Birgit Gudjonsdottir © Provided by South China Morning Post A scene from the play. Photo: Birgit Gudjonsdottir

"In 2010," he says, "Jesus was very confident in what he was saying, but he was not someone very angry or aggressive."

But for 2022, StUckl wanted to respond to a growing wealth gap, a refugee crisis, Covid-19, and the war in Ukraine.

"He said the world needs a louder Jesus," says Mayet, "because the message is so important."

Jesus enters Jerusalem in a scene from the play. Photo: Birgit Gudjonsdottir © Provided by South China Morning Post Jesus enters Jerusalem in a scene from the play. Photo: Birgit Gudjonsdottir

In 1990 StUckl was infuriated that he was forbidden from using one actor because he was Protestant rather than Catholic, and fought for change.

"I was so angry I went to the council and said it's not the Catholic Church that's the holder of the passion play, it's the village of Oberammergau. It's not important to be a Catholic or a Protestant. It's only important that you like to act."

Not only is one of the two Judases this year not Catholic, but he is an Oberammergau-born Muslim, and Judas is one of the most desirable roles according to alternate Judas Martin Schuster, 32, whose military career means he can only take the role at weekends.

The Passion Play Theatre. Photo: Arno Declair. © Provided by South China Morning Post The Passion Play Theatre. Photo: Arno Declair.

"It is very different and colourful. You're a close friend of Jesus. You're cheering during the entrance into Jerusalem. And then you betray him, and you have a huge scene of desperation when you kill yourself."

Between 1634 and 1830, performances took place at the graves of the plague dead, and Otto Huber, 75 and about to take part for the eighth time, says a 17th-century cast list shows that his ancestors were in the very first performances.

"They did the play over the fresh tombs of their family, so it's a special time to talk about life and resurrection over the tomb of the person whom you have buried before."

A laugh at the expense of Jesus in a scene from the play. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley © Provided by South China Morning Post A laugh at the expense of Jesus in a scene from the play. Photo: Peter Neville-Hadley

Kilian FrUhschUtz, 17, is proud to be a guard along with some of his friends, although this means giving up the usual European teenager summer activities such as boozy nights on Mediterranean beaches. "There are after-parties, too," he says cheerfully. "It's a fun experience and a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

For many, participation is simply part of the fabric of Oberammergau life. "I think it's more like a traditional thing and not really many people do this because of church or Jesus," says FrUhschUtz.

Schuster agrees: "We're kind of religious but it's nothing to do with religion. You're born here and you live here, it's like automatically you're participating."

The Cleansing of the Temple scene. The cast have to be born in Oberammergau or have lived there for 20 years. Photo: Birgit Gudjonsdottir © Provided by South China Morning Post The Cleansing of the Temple scene. The cast have to be born in Oberammergau or have lived there for 20 years. Photo: Birgit Gudjonsdottir

Despite revisions the overall production values remain traditional. The set and costumes are sombre and simple, although intermittent tableaux provide colour. Most of the music, reminiscent of Mendelssohn, was locally composed in the 1800s. The language of the text is still a slightly archaic form of German (English translations are provided).

But last-minute uncertainty about whether the play would go ahead weakened advance booking, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine saw 20,000 tickets returned by Americans with a poor sense of geography.

This means that a usually sold-out show still has some tickets available. But if that situation lasts for long it really will be a miracle.

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