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

By Katja Thimm

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.

Photo Gallery: Oberammergau's Passion Play Photos
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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."

'Jesus, Your Line!'

"Yes, we can!" says Stückl, switching for a moment into English to make a Barack Obama reference, as he forms a fist with his right hand. "This is the way you have to imagine this Jesus. This man is your hope!"

Bearded, longhaired men in ski pullovers are sitting around the table: two men to play Jesus, two to play the apostle Peter and two to play John. There are two actors to play each of the key disciple roles. Stückl hurls himself around the table. He seems to be everywhere at the same time, looking at and speaking to everyone simultaneously. He is sweating already, and yet the rehearsal on this cold January evening has just begun.

"Do you understand?" he asks. "And now your Jesus invites you to the Last Supper and announces that he is going to allow himself to be killed. At that moment, you have absolutely no sympathy for this guy. Okay, let's do it again!"

"Rabbi, why are you standing so far away?" a disciple mumbles in Jesus's direction.

"Hey, make it more powerful," says the director, standing on tiptoe. "You're a disappointed fan."

"We were hoping for light, and there was darkness instead," the actor mumbles in response. "What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?"

"Jesus, your line!" Stückl calls out.

"These are things that concern only the godless!" This voice, too, sounds halfhearted.

There is a hissing sound. There is always a hissing sound when Stückl takes a drag from his cigarette, a loud, dramatic hissing as he inhales deeply. He interrupts the rehearsal.

"Let's talk about this," he says. "Imagine Jesus had launched a startup company to create a better world. You were part of it from the very beginning, and you gave up your jobs and your families to be there. Now the end is near. How do you feel?" They talk about existential fears, feeling forsaken and disappointment. "That's exactly what you have to convey," says the director. "So let's start again!"

Modifying the Source Material

Stückl says he wants to remove the "sugar" that has accumulated around the story over the centuries. He wants to come to grips with this uncompromising person who, whether God incarnate or not, was also a victim of powerful political forces, as he sees it.

He has modified the source material once again. In his third time as director, he is rejuvenating the Passion Play once more, staging a modern artistic theater production instead of a pious amateur play.

In Stückl's version, Jesus explains who he is and how he feels in the very first scene. He does so using the words of the Sermon on the Mount, a hugely important text for Christians. Jesus is portrayed as a young Jew, criticizing the state of the world and the Jewish elite.

Then Pontius Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judaea, appears. In the Bible, it is written that he washes his hands of the matter. In Stückl's production, he behaves like a tyrant who wants to get rid of Jesus but is unwilling to take the responsibility for his death. He threatens the Jewish leadership, telling them that the rabble-rousing evangelist has to disappear.

Stückl also has Judas, who is normally considered a traitor, making a futile attempt to bring Jesus and the Jewish elite together for a political negotiation. When Jesus is crucified, Judas can no longer live with the guilt. Peter, however, who renounces Jesus three times, puts his trust in the mercy of his Lord. And even though he too is a traitor, like Judas, he becomes the leader of the new Christian church.

New Elements

This is the play that has Oberammergau in turmoil: Jesus as a committed Jew, Pilate as a tyrant, Judas as a disappointed disciple and Peter as a failure.

Other new elements include a text from the Jewish Shema Yisrael, a group of committed supporters of Jesus among the crowd on stage, the appearance of two camels on stage, the resurrection of Jesus late in the evening and the role of Claudia, Pilate's wife. The scenery and the material and colors of the costumes are also new.

Korbinian Freier, who plays the apostle Philip as someone hoping impatiently for a better world, is enthusiastic about Stückl's approach. The 29-year-old doctoral student now believes that Jesus was the only credible revolutionary. "He doesn't just talk, he acts. The idealism he exudes is unbelievable."

Of course, it's debatable whether Jesus would recognize his ideas of absoluteness, brotherly love and honesty in today's Church, says Frederik Mayet, the 30-year-old actor who plays Jesus and works as a press spokesman for a theater. Nevertheless, he adds, this doesn't diminish the ideas.

The other actor who plays Jesus, Andreas Richter, a 33-year-old psychologist, also mentions his doubts. He says that he had had a hard time identifying with the Bible. He found it too difficult to wrap his imagination around the prophecies and the miracles. "But now, the fact that you're allowed to be critical in the rehearsals and the discussions, it's just amazing!"

Church Keeps Watch over the Play

The archbishop of Munich is the one who keeps watch over the content of the play. He has appointed Ludwig Mödl, a theology professor, to serve as adviser and address all questions and doubts.

Mödl is on Stückl's side. The Church needs people who are intellectually alert, says the 72-year-old. And part of being a critical younger person, he adds, is to question structures and interpretations.

No, says Mödl, the production doesn't violate the Bible.

Some passages are certainly a stretch, he says. Once, for example, the director texted him the line: "You mangy dog!" He asked Stückl to make a change. But other than that? "All four gospels tell the story of the Passion with different words. The play has to be compatible with them. And it is."

Sticking to the Rules

The Catholic pastor in the village is also convinced that the production doesn't cross any serious lines. The traditional rule which states that the words spoken by Jesus must be from the Bible was adhered to. Besides, he adds, he doesn't believe that the word of God can be found by examining the Holy Scripture with a magnifying glass.

"The former pastor asked me to pay him a visit when I became director for the first time," says Stückl. "I had cast a friend as Judas."

The friend was a Protestant.

The priest played various records, with music by Mendelssohn, Bach and Mozart. Which music did Christian like the most, he asked?

Bach, Stückl replied without hesitation. And that's exactly where the problem begins, the pastor replied. Bach, a Protestant, refused salvation. The music of Mendelssohn, a Jew, could offer no salvation. A true Catholic, the pastor said, could only love Mozart. Now that, he said, was the music of salvation.

'Totally Catholic'

Stückl considered leaving the Church. But he decided not to, despite what he saw as its unrealistic dogmas. "I do, in fact, see myself as being totally Catholic," he says. "The Corpus Christi procession, the incense, all the theatrics, the staging of religious services, it influenced me deeply."

As well as dealing with all the conflicts in the village, Stückl is also trying to improve relations between Christians and Jews.

"Oberammergau is a matter of global importance for the Jewish international organizations," says theologian Ludwig Mödl, who also advises Stückl on this issue. "They see the Passion Play as a barometer of anti-Semitic thoughts and feelings."

Beginning in the Middle Ages, one of the purposes of passion plays was to denounce the Jews as the murderers of Jesus. This was also the case in Oberammergau. Hitler enthusiastically celebrated the figure of Pilate as a "rock in the midst of the Jewish rabble and seething masses."

After World War II, American intellectuals called for a boycott of the Passion Play. Representatives of the Catholic Church also wanted it to be cleansed of its anti-Jewish content. Some 5,000 tickets were returned when the Second Vatican Council condemned the play for its "bursts of hatred" and its "anti-Semitism." At the same time, however, a flyer was circulated in Oberammergau that sharply criticized "the outrageous attempts at extortion" on the part of Jews. As recently as 1990, the play included the so-called "blood curse," the sentence with which the Jewish people supposedly curse themselves for being responsible for Jesus's death ("His blood be on us, and on our children!"). The passage, however, is only found in the Gospel according to Matthew.

"In 1990, I wasn't allowed to take it out yet," says Stückl. Ten years later, he got his way, with the help of his adviser Mödl, and removed the curse. He emphasized Jesus's Jewish heritage instead.

A Scene that Sends Chills Up the Spine

In the past, representatives of Jewish organizations had traveled to Germany from New York to discuss the text, and they came again this time. "We were determined to make greater allowances for Jewish interests," says Mödl. Such allowances include the portrayal of Pilate, who, as the Roman occupier, expedites Jesus's death, and the inclusion of vocal defenders of Jesus among the angry mob.

"But there is one scene that still sends chills up your spine," says Stückl. "When hundreds cry out: 'Crucify him!'" It is a dramatic high point that Stückl is unwilling to do without.

Perhaps there will never be agreement on this issue. "But we have to continue the dialogue forever," says Stückl. This is one of the reasons that he and a number of actors and musicians took a 10-day trip to Israel, accompanied by a priest from the Vatican.

Martin Müller has taken the floor in the village council. What's happening out there, he says angrily, cannot be allowed to continue. After all, he argues, the open-air stage is still a public space. And Herr Stückl, he says, is constantly violating the no-smoking rules. It's about time, says Müller, that house rules be established for the Passion Play theater.

Used to Conflict

Sitting in his office, Oberammergau Mayor Arno Nunn rolls his eyes. When he was running for office two years ago as a political independent, the campaign slogan on his posters read: "With Heart and Mind." He won the election.

Nunn, a former police officer, has received psychological training on how to cope with conflict situations and has also been the coach of a soccer team. But the desire to argue and rub people up the wrong way dominates in Oberammergau, he says. Nunn speculates that perhaps this has something to do with residents' early stage experiences. In the village, children learn how to be theatrical and make grand gestures at an early age.

Nunn is a good person to ask about the peculiarities of the village. He has only lived there for 13 years, which means that he is not eligible to be in the play.

"One example," he says, "is the way the cross is moved around." Stückl's opponents, he says, had recently submitted a complaint to the village council. They wanted to know why the crosses had to be placed at a different angle on the stage this time. "The meetings are always about the Passion," he says. "As it happens, everything in this village relates to it, one way or another."

Deeply in Debt

Then he writes a few large numbers onto a flipchart. The first is 29 million.

"Debts," he says, pointing out that there has been much more construction in Oberammergau than in other villages. The municipality has a wave pool with a giant slide, snow-making machines and a retractable roof over the theater, all of which have running costs. And most of the village's infrastructure, including even the sewage system, is oversized. "Everything is designed for the large number of guests arriving once every 10 years," he says.

The next figure is 20 million.

"The expected profits from the Passion Play," he says. It could even be more, he says. But, in the midst of the economic crisis, the package tours aren't selling as well as anticipated. Stückl's adversaries also blame the director for that.

The village council is split down the middle, nine against nine, the conservatives against the progressives. With the exception of one member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, they are all independents. On one side are Martin Müller and his political friends, and on the other side are Christian Stückl and his supporters. In between are two members of the Christian Social Union (CSU), who see themselves as conservative centrists. But because the two CSU members don't necessarily agree on everything, they don't always vote the same. When that happens, it's 10 against 10. And that's when the people in Oberammergau get involved. There are few communities in Bavaria with this much direct democracy. A referendum was held to decide on the construction of the theater roof, a referendum finalized the choice of director and a referendum encouraged the director not to give up.

It was a narrow, 56-percent victory, and yet Stückl has changed the village in a short period of time. When, 22 years ago, he directed the village's "Pestspiel" ("Plague Play") -- a theater piece which tells the story of how the Oberammergau tradition of the 10-yearly Passion Play arose and which serves as a test for any future director of the Passion Play -- the mayor, pastor and 1,800 residents protested against what they saw as blasphemy. Stückl had staged it as a play that also dealt with AIDS, in which a carver of religious statues, in despair over his god, threw a cross onto the ground. And while some protested, 400 young supporters held a candlelight vigil in front of the town hall.

Shaping the Village's Worldview

Whoever controls the Passion Play is a powerful person in the village. He can change views of the world and shape the world's view of the village. Whoever controls the Passion can disseminate a certain way of life. And he creates biographies. Each leading role improves an actor's reputation in the village community for generations to come. "He plays Caiaphas, and his grandfather played Jesus twice" is a typical sentence in Oberammergau.

Some residents let their role in the play influence their role in life. One woman remained single because she had played the Virgin Mary. As an old man, a resident who had once played Jesus would walk through the village blessing people. There are many who bear wounds of the Passion in Oberammergau.

Until 1990, married or widowed women were barred from performing, because, as potential actors in the role of Mary, women were expected to at least give the impression of chastity. Then three female residents filed a lawsuit in the Bavarian Higher Administrative Court and won the right to participate in the play. From then on, Protestants and Muslims were also permitted to take part, and the members of the village council were deprived of their control over the content of the Passion Play. A governmental body had to be neutral when it came to questions of worldview, one expert concluded. That was when the archdiocese sent its adviser to the village.

This year, for the first time, the director is permitted to work on the script until the day of the premiere. And this time he also cast the leading roles on his own. Bolstered by referendums, he has suspended the old order. In doing so, Stückl has refuted the cliché of how a Catholic village in Bavaria should behave.

'Crucify Him!'

The sound of 900 voices echoes through the village. "Cru-ci-fy him!" the people shout on the open-air stage.

"Release him!" Jesus's followers cry.

"Cru-ci-fy him!"

The director faces old men in traditional hats, young men whose jeans hang practically down to their knees and women fumbling with their reading glasses, script in hand.

"You still don't know your lines by heart?" he shouts into the microphone. "And take your chewing gum out of your mouth!"

Stubborn Camels

It's late in the evening, the rehearsal has been going on since early in the afternoon, and Stückl doesn't have much time left before the premiere. The scene on the Mount of Olives wasn't bad, and the actors playing Jesus seemed believable in their mortal agony. Things also went well on the previous day, when there were children with donkeys and goats on the stage. The stubborn camels will need a few more rehearsals.

"Cru-ci-fy him!"

It is the scene that makes the rabbis so uncomfortable. It's a powerful scene. It doesn't, however, convey a distorted image of the Jewish people. It portrays humans as individuals who are part of a crowd, a crowd that becomes frightening when it turns into an uncontrollable, manipulated mob.

Soon a truce will prevail in the village, as soon as the curtain goes up on the Passion Play. They owe it to the Passion and, this time, they also owe it to the debt-ridden village. Even Martin Müller will go to the theater, from six to eight every morning. He has signed up to work on the cleaning crew. The scoffers call it his martyrdom. But everyone understands that, in the end, he too wants to take part.

Possible Successor

Stückl, the skeptic, will pray with the actors before each performance. Sometimes he thinks about the future of the play, and about his successor. "Maybe it'll be Abdullah," he says. "I think he'd like to do it."

Abdullah Karaca, who now works as an assistant director in Munich, was in the play 10 years ago. Stückl met him when he was looking for actors. When he discovered that Abdullah had a marvelous singing voice, he was determined to cast the Muslim boy.

Abdullah's father gave his consent. "Okay, boss," he told the director. "Just don't turn us into Catholics!"

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