It’s one o’clock to show the time in Oberammergau, a pretty village of extravagantly painted houses nestled in the Bavarian Alps.
Every decade for nearly 400 years, crowds have come here to watch the village stage the Passion Play – and today is no different, with visitors from Florida, the Philippines and just down the street at Garmisch.
“We’ve never been there because we’re not really churchgoers,” said Viktor, a 65-year-old resident alongside his wife. “Friends offered us tickets and we decided to come, but it’s more for the theater than for religious conviction.
Inside the vast festival hall, the 4,400 seats fill up in the covered auditorium when, as at the right time, the sky behind the stage darkens. Rolling thunder is followed by lightning and a heavy downpour. Jesus rides the stage on a donkey, cheered by followers waving palm fronds, beginning a crushing feast for the eyes and ears: a Cecil B DeMille-sized cast of 1,400, six goats, two camels, two horses a choir of 125 and 57 musicians in the pit offering a lush musical palette à la Haydn.
Over the next five hours of performance, interrupted by a three-hour dinner break, a familiar drama will unfold. But every decade, Oberammergau enthusiasts take a different route to Golgotha. This year, their journey is colored by the two-year delay of the pandemic, war in Europe — and the lingering furor over bishops in what was once a traditional Catholic heartland.
Six months ago, the Bavarian Archdiocese of Munich and Freising presented a report revealing at least 497 cases of clerical sexual abuse in the post-war period. Some relate to when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was Archbishop of Munich, although he denies any knowledge of or responsibility for the abuse or abuse of priests.
Oberammergau artistic director Christian Stückl recalls how, when he took over in 1990, the local Catholic church still had what he calls a “‘we’re the boss’ arrogance” towards the play and its theological content, reflecting the exalted position enjoyed by the institution. in daily life.
“As in Ireland, however, the change to the church here is astonishing,” he said.
When the clerical abuse report came out in January, he and his creative team wondered if they really wanted to hold a traditional opening mass for this year’s Passion Play.
“We ended up moving on after they told us, ‘You can’t give up on us too,'” he said. “But people have abandoned the church here.”
Since its beginnings in 1634, the Passion Game, staged each decade by villagers in gratitude for being spared the plague, has been a tussle twice: between liberal and conservative villagers, and between inhabitants and the Bavarian bishops who have muscled themselves.
Stückl has led secular and reformist pushback since 1990, deleting the script of anti-Semitism, removing historic bans on the appearance of married women, and allowing Protestant and Muslim villagers to take the stage. A sign of the times, 2022 is the very first production where none of the 40 main performers are practicing.
“In a way, the story we tell is immaterial,” says Stückl, a famous German theater director. “On the other hand, however, there is no getting around the material, and the more important their role, the more the performers are compelled to engage and discuss this history, these teachings.”
This year’s script puts Jesus’ revolutionary teachings and political arguments at the heart of the play, putting many of Jesus’ most familiar gospel teachings into the mouths of his followers. The result: Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount is not a top-down revelation, but a human, participatory response to the injustices of the times and a belief in something better.
The Jesus of Oberammergau in 2022 is angry with the high priests, delivering a stark message that is just as applicable today. Anyone more interested in privilege and position than in their central message, anyone who preaches rather than lives the gospels, need not worry about being sidelined by secularism: they is set aside itself.
At a dark time for Christianity in Europe, this unwavering message from Oberammergau feels oddly optimistic: human hope for salvation never dies, just those who hold that hope hostage.
Putting on such a play is a colossal undertaking: a third of this village of 5,200 inhabitants is directly involved and the hotels and restaurants live off the spectators who come from May to October.
But what about the future? The 2020 pandemic cancellation meant not all guests returned and – unusually – tickets are still available for most performances through October. Oberammergau’s public profile is old – and aging. And when visitors disappear into the theatre, the pretty streets of Oberammergau look like a Potemkin village. Local woodcarvers continue to sell traditional wooden religious designs, unchanged for a century, but few buy.
“The ship sailed in our tradition as a wood carver,” a former shop owner says sadly. “All young talents now work in the theater or in Berlin.”
Benedikt Fisher shares this grim perspective. He sits outside his bright and cheerful cafe theater, the last caffeination point before the performance, as he prepares for his stage-stealing turn of camp as King Herod.
Like all locals, the 39-year-old has a huge emotional connection to Passion Play. After regaining control from the bishops, however, he would like a radical overhaul of Oberammergau – both the game and the village – to ensure that his best years are not behind him.
“Passion Play is like a golden calf that we worship every 10 years,” he says. “It absorbs all of our energy and our potential for innovation, and sometimes I fear that it destroys and hinders more than it creates.”