(Laura Studarus’s article appeared on BBC 4, 8/9.)
Once a decade, ever since 1634, German village Oberammergau has staged a remarkable, epic play about Jesus Christ involving thousands of residents. Laura Studarus gets a front-row view.
Visiting Oberammergau, a small village located in Germany’s Bavarian Alps, feels like stepping into a Disney film. From the rolling mountains that frame the village, to the wooden houses covered with swirling folk art paintings and carvings – a practice that dates back to the 16th Century there – the words “quaint”, “cute” and “postcard-worthy” come easily. It doesn’t even seem outrageous that the area has its own wine and cheese vending machine… because why wouldn’t they encourage visitors to enjoy this setting as much as possible?
Located near the centre of the village is St Peter und Paul, a baroque Catholic church. It was here, in 1634, in the Rococo-style church, that the villagers first made a historic pledge. In a turn of events that feel eerily resonant now, the black plague had come to the village and decimated almost 20% of the population in only a few months. In an attempt to turn the tide, the residents promised that they would perform a passion play – aka a dramatic retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – once every 10 years, if God spared the rest of the city. The first productions were performed in the church graveyard, just above the bodies of those taken by the disease, and – as the story goes – no one else died.
Since those first performances, plenty of events have conspired to stop the plays, which are typically performed at the beginning of every decade, including the Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish Flu – and yes, Covid-19, with the 2020 production postponed until this year, when it is running as usual from May to October. Historically, it’s experienced mixed support: in 1770 the Duke of Bavaria Maximilian III Joseph tried to ban it, claiming “the theatre stage is no place for the greatest secret of our holy religion”. However, in 1900, entrepreneur Thomas Cook found such a value in the performance, he compelled the city to build a 4,400-seat theatre so that he could sell foreign audiences on the idea of seeing a five-hour play (with an additional three-hour dinner break) in a language they didn’t speak, a move that effectively introduced tourism to the region.
A group effort
Now in its 388th year, the passion play influences nearly every aspect of the life in the village. Nearly 2,000 of the Oberammergau’s 5,000 residents take part both in front and behind the stage. Main actors commit to taking almost a year off work for rehearsals, a group trip to Israel, and the six-month play performance schedule. And every man commits to growing out his hair for the year leading up to the show, and keeps his shaggy do until it’s cut during the wrap party. (Their hair is later displayed in ropes in the Oberammergau Museum, a building covered in blue denim costumes from 2000 and 2010 Passion Plays.)
As Frederik Mayet, one of the two actors alternating in the role of Jesus this year, says, all group sacrifices are in service of what they see as the greater good. They’ve been literally training for this their entire lives.