“We kept our beards”: the passionate game of Oberammergau emerges from the pandemic | Germany

FFrom his perch in the orchestra pit of the Oberammergau stage, Christian Stückl nods and points to his musicians above, trying to offer them helpful instructions as their dress rehearsal in front of a room half full of mostly people premises begins.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve come to this. I’m still waiting for something to go wrong, but other than a few older men forgetting their lines, there’s really nothing to complain about,” the director said at the end of the five-and-a-half-hour show.

Director Christian Stückl at a press conference before the rehearsal. Photo: Matthias Schräder/AP

The villagers of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps are in a state of excitement. Their “passion play” – which in 1633 their ancestors swore to God to stage every 10 years if they were spared other plague deaths (they were) – is back after having been shifted from its usual two-year schedule due to the latest pandemic.

Depicting the life, persecution, death and resurrection of Jesus, the 42nd season of what is believed to be the world’s longest running continuous amateur theatrical production will open on Saturday with a run of 103 performances through October.

The play is the raison d’être of the village. It’s taken for granted that nearly every one of the 5,200 eligible residents, from babies to nonagenarians, plays a role on or off the stage. All children are allowed, as well as anyone who has lived in the village for 20 years or more.

jesus on the cross
After being postponed for two years due to the Covid, the passion play will be played from May 14 to October 2. Photograph: Lukas Barth/Reuters

“The last time we had to delay was 100 years ago, due to the Spanish flu, as well as the dead and wounded of World War I, after which it was postponed to 1922,” explains Stückl. “Pandemics and the Passion Play have a certain tradition.”

Despite concerns over whether it could go ahead, the usual executive order was issued on Ash Wednesday last year, prohibiting male attendees from cutting their hair or shaving their beards until closing time. production the following October.

“It was hard for us to believe until recently that this would continue when the coronavirus infection rate skyrocketed, but most of us played by the rules and didn’t cut our beards in the process. hope it would continue,” said Werner Richter. , a taxi driver who has appeared in every production since 1970. His grandchildren are among the 400 young people on stage and his son, Andreas, a former Jesus and psychologist by profession, holds one of the main roles as high priest Caiaphas.

Around 400 players who signed up to participate in 2020 were forced to drop out, some due to a change in life plan, others due to refusing to get vaccinated or take a daily test. The Catalan donkey Sancho, on whose back Jesus was to ride in Jerusalem, has retired, replaced by the young Aramis.

Jesus on a donkey
This year, the role of the donkey, on whose back Jesus was to ride in Jerusalem, will be played by Aramis, because the previous donkey, Sancho, has retired. Photograph: Lukas Barth/Reuters

“But luckily we have continuity where it counts, because most of the actors in the 42 lead roles stuck to it,” Stückl says.

The pandemic aside, his main challenge since becoming a director at the age of 24 in 1990 has been to retain existing but aging audiences while pushing the boundaries of the conservative Bavarian Catholic perspective he often has. considered limited.

He describes her greatest mission as trying to rid the passion game of the anti-Semitic view that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, for which she was particularly instrumentalized during the Nazi era with Hitler’s visit to two occasions.

“We are now in constant and extensive dialogue with religious representatives,” says Stückl. In 2010, he depicted Jesus lifting the Torah as the choir sang a version of the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, considered a highlight of the play by participants and viewers. This year there’s a new Hebrew setting of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) by music director Markus Zwink, set to be released internationally on a recording of the two-hour soundtrack for the first time.

Jesus washes the feet of one of his disciples.
Stückl said his biggest mission was to try to rid the play of the anti-Semitic view that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death. Photo: Matthias Schräder/AP

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 story, this is a radical move, and Stückl points to the storm that erupted in 1990 when he let a Protestant take the stage for the first time – sparking a petition from the local priest that 1,800 people signed up, hoping to get the director out. It is also working on how to strengthen the role of women (married women over 35 could not participate until a court ruling 32 years ago). “The production is very overloaded with men,” he admits. “But it’s a very masculine story.” It greatly expanded the time spent on stage by Jesus’ mother, Mary, as well as Veronique, who wipes her face, and Mary Magdalene, considered his closest female disciple, and he introduced the role of the wife of Pilate, previously mentioned only by a male servant who voiced his objection to Jesus’ treatment.

Frederik Mayet, the actor playing the character of Jesus Christ, reads his script in his dressing room, outside which is the 90 kg cross he must carry.
Frederik Mayet, the actor playing the character of Jesus Christ, reads his script in his dressing room, outside which is the 90 kg cross he must carry. Photograph: Lukas Barth/Reuters

In his backstage box at the 5,200-seat theatre, Frederik Mayet, 41, who alternates Jesus with another actor, shows off some of his props and aids. There’s a climbing belt that fits under his loincloth and keeps him securely attached to the cross during the crucifixion scene, and a menacing-looking crown of thorns with blunt spikes. Outside, leaning against the wall, is the three-meter gray wooden crucifix itself, all 90 kg, which it must carry. “It’s as heavy as it sounds,” he jokes. For Mayet – whose family first took part in the play in 1890 and whose three and eight-year-old children are with him on stage – the perennial question, as for most Oberammergauers, is how to ensure relevance of the room.

“As a community, our passion for the play and our courage to believe in it is unwavering,” he says. “Fundamentally, history for me is less about the theological details and more about emphasizing its relevance to our experience of being human.”

The crowns of thorns of Frederik Mayet and the actor with whom he alternates the role, Rochus Rueckel, hang next to the cabinet of the theater.
The crowns of thorns of Frederik Mayet and the actor with whom he alternates the role, Rochus Rueckel, hang next to the cabinet of the theater. Photograph: Lukas Barth/Reuters

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 the growing ecological disaster. This time his Jesus is – under Stückl’s direction – “more political, more angry, someone who seeks social justice”. He has sought inspiration, he says, wherever he can find it.

It was thanks to entrepreneur Thomas Cook, a salesman of excursions, who discovered the play in 1880 and began selling enthusiast game packages, that it was so successful overseas. His biggest group of fans comes from the United States.

Frederik Mayet as Jesus carrying the 90 kg cross.
Frederik Mayet as Jesus carrying the 90 kg cross. Photograph: Leonhard Simon/EPA

But this year, the war in Ukraine has already put off tens of thousands of Americans, who have canceled trips to Europe. To make up for the shortfall, the call was made to the Germans to come and discover the piece.

Otherwise, the village’s goal is to survive unscathed until October. The biggest fear, widely expressed, is that both Jesuses will fall with the coronavirus at the same time.

Stückl says when it’s over, he’ll go on a retreat to an ashram in India, “happy to get Jesus out of my head.”

Janina Nowotka, a hairdresser, says she will wait for lines of men outside her salon. “They’re desperate to get a haircut by then,” she says. “They come in and get a beer and the atmosphere is jovial and festive. And those who can’t wait stand in the street and cut each other’s hair.