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Saved By The Vow: The Famous Oberammergau Passion Play is Back

image courtesy of oberammergau.de
Written by Max Haberstroh

After two years of waiting and six months of intensive rehearsals, the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play was set to premiere on May 14, 2022.

Optimism  – Against All Odds

In 1632 amid the Thirty Years’ War, marauding Swedish troops brought the plague to the foothills of the Alps and finally reached Oberammergau. “The plague is in front of the door, and nobody wants to let it in – but death is already here,” says the grave digger in the Oberammergau theater play ‘The Plague’. The piece refers to 1633, performing the background story of the Passion Play, as Oberammergau inhabitants vowed to play the Passion every ten years, if saved from the Black Death. A year later, the plague came to a standstill, and Oberammergau’s citizens kept their promise.

Oberammergau is one of the most picturesque villages of the Ammer Valley in Bavaria, with its colorfully frescoed houses and scores of workshops and stores selling arts and crafts, cover glass painting and woodcarving – everything handmade with dedication and, yes, with ‘passion’: The village’s ‘Herrgottschnitzer’ woodcarvers are legendary, and the architecture of the churches and palaces in the region is a symphony of full of joie-de-vivre displayed in baroque and rococo.

One of Oberammergau’s many architectural jewels is the ‘Pilatushaus’ (House of Pilate), built in 1774 and furnished with wonderful frescoes in traditional Bavarian-Austrian style (‘Lüftlmalereien’).

The edifice owes its name to the fresco ‘Jesus sentenced by Pontius Pilate’: Pilate’s snide, unanswered question to Jesus “What is truth?” might have bothered his nightmare-ridden wife more than himself – yet certainly it has been on the minds of those organizing the Passion Play, Mr. Christian Stückl in particular, the Play’s indefatigable director.

Apart from its metaphysical quest, truth sometimes just results from the power of facts.

The outbreak of Covid-19 more than two years ago with its dramatic effects was – and still is – such a fact. It is true that the ‘pandemic’, as it is called, triggered a turn-around. In fact, Covid-19 put globalization as Western democracies’ upheld panacea of creating change by trade on a drastic trial: Change came, but not the way desired.

At Oberammergau the leading Passion Play team had to cancel the 2020 theater season – a shock for everyone. The Play was postponed to 2022 – a wise resolution, albeit it meant no theater summer for two years. That in 2014 UNESCO declared the Passion Play an intangible cultural heritage might have been worth remembering, yet besides emotional setbacks, crucial tangibles determined people’s livelihood agenda, in terms of economic losses and missing jobs. Should the Passion Play not be held, after all – and against all odds?

Sad and disappointed, Oberammergau’s actors had their long-grown hair cut off again, hotels treated room cancellations, actors put their costumes to the closet, and everyone went back to their normal lives. Admittedly, there is a difference between the Plague then and Covid today, not to mention people’s stance on how to face the calamity. The contrast could not be stronger: People’s disparate cries to God and moving prayers of hope in crammed churches during the Plague 400 years ago, vs. TV virologists’ urgent appeals of getting vaccinated, with subsequent ‘booster’ shots as an arguable health sector’s stagy ‘encore’! 

Times have changed since the 17th century. Nowadays mentalities in the West pretend to be enlightened: Religion is either questioned or has degenerated to fundamentalist parishes, the Church has lost influence, and governments’ appeals to solidarity remain lip services, when references to Gallup polls provide enough excuses for inactivity. But alas, even if hesitant, often contradictory, and sometimes chaotic, there were binding decisions on the pandemic. The ‘normative force of the factual’ has revealed itself once again as strong enough as to adapt people to new conditions – yet to still keep most of us living on with confidence and a healthy optimism – against all odds.

The Passion Play is Back – Anti-Semitism is Out

This stance is badly needed, since there was alarming news about Russian-sparked war in Ukraine, with all its horrible impact. Put into this setting, Christ’s Passion displays the true tragedy of mankind, as some leaders seem to have forgotten that killing is the wrong way in search of happiness.

Since low incidence figures have more and more prompted the cancellation of Covid restrictions, the respect of preventive measures has given way to a more easygoing attitude, keeping us lulled to the illusion that the pandemic actually is over. It is not!

Nevertheless, the Play is back: After two years of waiting and six months of intensive rehearsals, the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play was set to premiere on May 14, 2022, and Christian Stückl is happy: “We have an endless desire to bring our Passion Play to the stage and we are highly motivated.“

Indeed, the motivation can be felt, and changes of the Play provide new accents: Participation is open to residents, whether or not they are members of the catholic or protestant churches, Christian, Jewish or Muslim villagers. In 2015 Mr. Abdullah Kenan Karaca, an Oberammergau citizen with Turkish roots, became Assistant Director of the Passion Play and was entrusted to play Nikodemus, the supreme jew. Judas’ role, too, is concerned: It is being played by an actor with migratory background, Mr. Cengiz Görür.

Thanks to Christian Stückl, traces of antisemitism were eradicated.

“Profound anti-Jewish sentiment was already apparent in early Christian Europe, its central tenet the accusation that Jews were to blame for the death of Christ. It completely ignored the fact that it was the Roman Pontius Pilate who condemned Christ to death.“ Stückl provides more personal insights: “It was very soon clear for our executive team of the Passion Play that dispute must not be fueled by constraint. Our core-team took a flight to Israel, trying to learn directly from Judaism. Let there be no doubt: in Oberammergau antisemitism has no place, neither in the Play nor in the lives of the performers.”

A New Start

As in 1990, 2000 and 2010, restaging of the Play in 2020 aims at enhancing the drama in a contemporary manner. Reasons are varied: Today’s audience is different, and new questions have come up. Whoever wants to strengthen the perception of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, should not fail to consider people’s fears and hopes. Therefore, treating Christ’s sufferings and death will guide the view in a dramatical way to the sense and future of human existence. Restaging the Passion Play intends to clarify important elements of Jesus’ message for today’s visitors: believers, agnostics or atheists. “It is important for us to underpin the fact that Jesus goes to the margins of society, taking care of the segregated. Jesus is with the sick, the strangers – he does not bother about hierarchies, he is amazingly consequent …,” Mr. Stückl says. “As everybody else, Jesus knows fear – and despite that he stays steadfast. Jesus Christ is fascinating – maybe also for atheists,” Christian Stückl concludes, smiling.

Playing the role of Jesus Christ can actually only overstrain any daring actor. “The role means inner conflict, a disruption,” says Mr. Rochus Rückel, one of two Jesus actors. “Scenes that internalize Jesus’ thoughts are much more difficult to play than when he speaks out clearly.” – Rückel’s counterpart, Mr. Frederik Mayet adds: “The Passion Play’s impact goes directly to the heart. If we play with zest, power, sincerity and joy, it will be ideally this approach that electrifies the audience. Then there is a magic moment that on both sides releases energies.”

Magic moments are also shared by Ms. Andrea Hecht, playing Jesus’ mother Mary  and Ms. Barbara Schuster as Mary of Magdala, Jesus’ most outstanding female disciple. Andrea Hecht is sure that the two women “were quite aware of what Jesus had in mind. Their farewell could also take place here and now. That is very moving. One is not getting hardened over the years of playing the Passion.“

Mr. Markus Zwink, the Play’s Musical Director and conductor, points to the character of the Passion Play as an “oratorium.” Mr. Zwink says: “Stylistically, it is close to the sacred oratorio of the late classical period, but also partly to the musical language of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.” A novelty is that the choir preludes the Play, renewing the Oberammergau citizens’ 1633 vow and accompanying the so-called ‘Living Images’.

Under the new executive team with Mr. Stefan Hageneier as the stage and costume designer, special attention has been given to the twelve ‘Living Images’ providing structure to the whole five-hour Play. The ‘Living Pictures’ which depict motifs of the Bible’s Old Testament, are filled with iconography and symbolism, with actors performing in a tableau, like caught by a snapshot. “The new idea behind the ‘Living Images’ is to show a large number of people in different variations of oppression, escape and persecution, but also of hope,” Mr. Hageneier says. This idea has pursued him ever since refugees in despair took the most dangerous migration routes through the desert and across the sea, from 2015 until today, in order to flee war and despotism.

A particular value has been set on the historical situation of Christ’s Passion.

A longtime aspiration of the Jewish population centered around a ‘Messiah’, who following an old prophesy would be coming to liberate the Jews from Roman yoke. The political situation was tense and people’s mental state gloomy. This atmosphere was to be transferred to the Oberammergau Passion Play Theater – a challenge for the Play’s executive team, who understood the 2022 Passion Play as a ‘new start’.

Whereas the original stage of the Passion Play Theater followed an ancient Greek style, its conversion into a ‘dystopian temple complex’ is intended to represent the antique center of urban Jerusalem. The dystopian leitmotif of timeless refugee movements is reflected in the ‘Living Images’, as bright colors of hope stand out against dark backdrops. Moreover, the dystopian look of the temple applies to the more vehemently led controversy about Jesus’ verdict, as his disciples are more fervently incurred against their enemies. Furthermore, the character of Judas in his entire tragedy is being stressed strongly. Judas intends to boost his own more politically inspired idea of Jesus’ message. He does not want his master’s death.

The Passion’s Implicit Turn-around

Meanwhile, the Oberammergau Passion Play has become more and more popular – at home and abroad. Prominent visitors include European and Asian monarchs, renowned actors and engineers from France, presidents and millionaires from the US, composers and authors from Germany and Europe, rabbis from Israel, popes, cardinals, and politicians – good ones and less good ones.

In 2010, 500,000 visitors frequented the Play. Yet in the 19th century US-Americans started to detect Oberammergau, as in 1880 Thomas Cook had set off to visit the region.  It was just a matter of time until international Tourism had gained momentum to the fairytale region between Neuschwanstein castle and Zugspitze. Germany’s highest peak rises majestically over Elmau Castle, the lavish venue of the G7 summit. Time and again, coincidence is in the air: while G7 leaders are struggling for a common denominator of action and demonstrators brandishing their banderoles, in Oberammergau, 17 kilometers by air distance, the Passion Play’s continued performance is fascinating a grateful audience.

The Oberammergau Passion Play is intricately linked with the 1632 Plague and the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, while Palestine, the historical venue of Christ’s Passion, was a Roman-occupied province. Now, we are witnesses of a war which entails death and destruction in Russian-beleaguered and attacked Ukraine, while Covid-19, the  ominous pandemic that shocked the world, keeps lurking with growing incidence figures, defying our revamped facade of summer relaxation and carefreeness. – Have we entered a dystopian age? Has Oberammergau reopened its Passion Play summer season just in time?

Christ’s Passion is felt as an outrightly dystopian event, maybe even more so during this year’s postponed Passion Play. Needless to say that the Passion, taken without the Resurrection as its most extreme contrast, would make the Christian belief null and void. This fact alone justifies the transformation of the cross as Roman gallows into an unparalleled symbol of hope and encouragement. In its contents and the simplicity of its form, the cross is one of the most outstanding symbols of the world. In terms of contemporary ‘branding’ criteria, we can say that never before has occurred – and sustained – a more thorough ‘re-branding’ from the bad to the good. It implies nothing less than a turn-around: ceding fear and oppression to boldness and freedom.

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Max Haberstroh

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