Modernity Vs. Tradition in Oberammergau Bavarian Village Divided over Updates to World-Famous Passion Play

For almost 400 years, the residents of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau have performed their world-famous Passion Play, a reenactment of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. But the play's avant-garde director, who is determined to erase traces of anti-Semitism from the piece, has left locals at odds over how to reconcile modern Christianity and tradition.

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When Christian Stückl and Martin Müller were children, they did theater together. They did what children in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau still do today. They recited and made music, and they acted in plays at the rectory.

Their first play was a nativity piece, with Christian serving as the director and Martin as a swaggering rascal. Like all children in the village, they had long had their sights set on the big stage, the stage out near the meadow.

That stage is where the residents of Oberammergau perform their world-famous Passion Play. Once every 10 years, they recount the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It has been a tradition in the village since 1633, when their ancestors made a promise to God that they would perform the play if the village was spared from the bubonic plague. They were indeed spared, and as a result they are still performing the play to this day.

This year, 2,000 actors, singers and orchestra musicians will appear on an open-air stage surrounded by tall mountains, in front of an audience of thousands. There will be 102 performances between May 15 and October 3, each of which will last five hours.

Whole Village Takes Part

There is nothing more powerful, says Martin Müller, and at the moment none of the village's 5,000 residents is likely to disagree. They tell stories of Ludwig II, Bavaria's famously eccentric king, who handed out silver spoons to all of the main actors -- except for the actor who played Judas, who received a tin spoon. Adolf Hitler attended the play, a fact that the village now finds regrettable. Other famous guests have included former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the current pope, in the days when he was still called Josef Ratzinger, as well as cabinet ministers, artists, starlets, Japanese television crews and the New York Times. And then, of course, there are the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

The 2010 premiere will take place on Saturday. For months, even the village's elderly and sick residents have been doing their part, while younger people have been reshaping their plans to accommodate the event. This year's Philip the apostle interrupted his doctoral studies, and one of the two actors who will play Jesus gave up his job, which was too far away. The mayor issued a "hair and beard decree" on Ash Wednesday of last year, and since then men, women and children have left their hair and beards largely uncut, so that they will look the way people supposedly did in ancient Jerusalem.

Locals use phrases like community, homeland and identity when they attempt to explain the event to outsiders. Anyone who was born in Oberammergau or has lived there for at least 20 years is entitled to take part in the festival. One of the many attractions of the event is that it brings a welcome change to residents who have spent the last nine years working in their ordinary jobs, as teachers, plumbers or landscapers, and who now get the chance to appear in the global spotlight. In fact, it must be painful not to be a part of it.

Endangering the Village's Roots

"Really painful," says Martin Müller. Nevertheless, he is refusing to take part this time. Müller, 40, an actor since childhood, a master wood carver and elected member of the village council, is protesting.

"Mr. Stückl is endangering the village to its very roots out there. This is no longer our play," he says heatedly, as he greets passersby through his window and beckons to some of them to come into his workshop, which doubles as a village shop. The only person he doesn't say hello to is Christian Stückl -- the same person with whom he once appeared in plays at the rectory.

Stückl will direct the Passion Play for the third time this year. The 48-year-old comes from an old and respected local family, he speaks the local dialect, and he too is a member of the village council.

But Stückl, the son of a hotel owner in Oberammergau, has long been a citizen of the world. He has worked as a director at the Munich Kammerspiele theater and he has been invited to Berlin's Theatertreffen theater festival. He has staged plays in India and Salzburg, and he now manages the Munich Volkstheater. Rigidity and narrow-mindedness are not part of his makeup. Even as a child in his parents' hotel, he would look forward to the tourists, because of the touch of glamour from the outside world they brought to the village. He is a skeptic and an artist. He rejects mediocrity and he is prepared to fight to express himself.

Tackling Old Ideas

His confidants in the village include people who feel the same way: the set designer, who now works as the director of décor and costuming at the Bavarian State Theater; the deputy director, who is probably more well-read than anyone else in the village; and the conductor, who leads 180 Oberammergau residents in the chorus and orchestra. Since Stückl began directing the Passion Play, it has also attracted the attention of newspapers' arts sections.

Stückl has brought the modern age to the Catholic village, complete with modernity's doubts and questions. In a time that priests, bishops, the Vatican and teachers are struggling to deal with abuse allegations, Stückl approaches the Church from the bottom up in Oberammergau. He grapples with the old faith, old rules and old ideas. In some ways, it is also an attempt to drive the conservative elements out of Catholicism. And Stückl's efforts have been successful.

This is precisely what his opponents accuse him of, except they choose different words. They are the people who congregate in Müller's shop, where flyers are laid out for "Grandpa Wants to Get Married," a farce about a miserly farmer which happens to be directed by Müller himself.

They extol the virtues of the past, when elected village representatives decided about actors' lines and the stage scenery. They complain that rabbis are now part of the decision-making process; they clamor that the members of the local costume group don't play a major role; and they grumble that the new staging lasts until late at night. In Oberammergau, they are fighting over everything that is sacred to human beings: feelings of self-worth, recognition, security and money -- and over the great questions of how people should live their lives and practice their faith.

"We are neither Munich nor America; we are a village," says Müller. "And we are still performing the Bible. That can't be modernized."

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