In 1633, the people of Oberammergau - a tiny village in this mountainous corner of Germany - were devastated by the black plague. Thousands of people in the surrounding areas and, despite precautions, in the town, died painful, horrible deaths. Eventually a group met in the local parish church, and down, on their knees in supplication, they promised God that they would present the passion of Jesus every ten years if only they would be spared. Legend has it that no one other deaths occurred – certainly, there were none recorded. Here is the introduction from their website:
“Gripped by war, poverty and plague, the villagers of Oberammergau, in Bavaria, southern Germany vowed to put on a 'passion play' every ten years…
That was back in 1633. They survived, and performed the first Oberammergau Passion Play in 1634. Ever since, their descendants have carried out that pledge.
For the past four centuries the tradition has continued, every ten years. Only villagers have been allowed to take part. And that is what will happen yet again in 2010, from 15th May until 3rd October.
They devote a year of their lives to re-enacting the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
All performers are laymen and pursue their usual careers as wood carvers, housewives and so forth...
In real life for instance Jesus is a psychologist and Mary Magdalene works as a flight attendant.
Like everyone else in the village, 'Jesus' and 'Mary' are ordinary people. By taking on these roles, they are fulfilling the promise to God made by their ancestors, celebrating their faith and sharing it with the world...
...as Oberammergauers have for some 375 years.”
As I mentioned before, we are staying in the village of Unteramergau, just outside the famed village. It’s very rural. Cows walk up and down the road. Huge dogs bark and wander around; no one, it appears, needs to be penned in. Most of the homes are small German cottages or farms, wood and stucco, sloped roofs; though there are some larger homes too. A lumberyard is piled high with newly sawn logs, while fallen trees lie in a huge heap, awaiting their fate. The smell of freshly cut wood permeates the cool mountain air.
In the morning, we have a lovely, generous breakfast, served by Oona and Albert, accompanied by their care and attentiveness. The bus waits for us up the road, just where the bridge crosses the Ammer River. We are joined by four people from South Africa, who tell us about their pilgrimage from Israel to Egypt to Germany, following the life of Jesus. We are amazed that they have done this in ten days.
The short ride brings us into the proper of the village. Here we find painted homes such as we haven’t seen before. Whole stories are told in fanciful art, characters and symbols, on every wall of many houses. We discover the reason for this: the tradition of covering your home with art originated in Oberammergau. The harsh winters and lack of good soil prevented the farmland from being lucrative, so the villagers developed their artistic skills: wood carving, painting, stained glass. Even today, the shops are filled with various handmade samples. In one store, a carver stands outside, coaxing images from inside a tree stump. There are thousands of people here, all with different languages, shapes and colours, all streaming through the markets.
There is a light rain that has brought out a myriad of colourful umbrellas. Cugina’s bright yellow one is a beacon for us to follow (ghost writer here is MJ).
I take a break from the shopping and wander along the river, eyeing the ridges above us. One peak looks like the mountain in Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, cugina says. I agree with her: it’s craggy and stumpy, a place where an ogre might live. The difference: there is a cross at the top of this one.
I meet up with the others at Ammergau Haus, where we have tickets for lunch. We’re in a huge room, sitting with Raymond and Gisele, and two German couples. The lunch is more like a dinner: soup and meat and potatoes and vegetables – and, of course, apple strudel for dessert. Afterward, we make our way to the theatre. It’s a large, mostly-covered stadium, with rows and rows of seats. They are all staggered perfectly so that you have a good view of the stage wherever you are seated. Which turns out to be a good thing, as we are close to the very back. However, we have a grand, sweeping view of the stage. In the background, green covered hills roll toward the horizon. Clouds are gathering, darker and more threatening than the light drizzle that’s misted our day. It’s warm and cozy in the seats, though, between Wendy and Mary Jo; I don’t even need my jacket.
The presentation is astonishing. The living tableaux, which break up the acts, are rich with history and colour. Deep red, royal blue, forest green – each of the scenes takes on a depth that sends us into open-mouthed appreciation every time they appear. The chorus sings the introductions, both heralding, explaining and forecasting what will happen next. We read along in our English “textbook”, which Albert & Oona distributed to us.
The German, to my ears, sounds guttural and hard, though the acting is phenomenal.
I can’t help but recall, once again, the old footage from war films which portray Hitler screeching at his troops, whipping the people up into a frenzy, when I hear the High Priests hollering out their criticisms or when Jesus throws the sellers out of the temple. The play has been rewritten since its inception. In the 1940’s, after the Second World War, people called for a boycott of the play because of its anti-Semitic tone.
In fact, in August of 1934, Hitler attended the 300-year anniversary of the reenactment. He had ordered that the official poster include the message, “Germany is calling you!”, meant to entice the young people into the Nazi ranks. Hitler attempted to have the play rewritten but all the Directors did was present the original format. Hitler was pleased with the portrayal of the Jews as the “murderers of Jesus”. In the 1970’s, the entire script was rewritten. Whenever changes are made, they are now approved by a council of Christian and Jewish spiritual leaders. Although MJ and I talk later and conclude that, in our view, it is still rather anti-Semitic, we see Kitty’s point of view too: it’s actually anti-establishment, and the establishment just happened to be, at that time, both Jewish and Roman men.
At the intermission, we return to the Ammergau Haus for dinner: once again, soup, meat, potatoes, vegetables – and apple strudel for dessert. We stroll through the town along with the other 4500 people, then head for the washroom (a long line) and back into our seats. Although the rain is now pelting down, it’s still not terribly cold. We squeeze into our seats and are once more mesmerized by the performances. Judas is portrayed as someone who made a huge mistake in trusting the Jewish high priests; his sorrow and ultimate suicide are very poignant. As if Peter’s anguish when he discovers that he had betrayed his best friend. The scourging and crucifixion are so realistically portrayed that MJ has to hide under her pashmina.
I agree with one of our fellow travelers however: this is an amazing experience because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for us. It was a great performance. But if was not a religious or even spiritual encounter for me.
We make our way through the crowds and the pouring rain to our bus, where we are crammed in with every language, age and race. It’s a small world unto itself, lights bright inside against the darkness and storm outside.
We are dropped off two streets from our original stop, so we hoist up our umbrellas or hoods and traipse off down the cemetery quiet road. No cows impede our progress: even they have the sense to be in bed at this time of night. Which is where we soon find ourselves: after a warm welcome from Oona, we cuddle under the warm duvets. MJ and I talk a bit about the play and our reactions to it. We agree that it was quite an incredible combination of emotional acting, soaring voices, creative, astonishing staging, and remarkable costumes.
In the middle of the night, a mosquito buzzes my ear several times, but I can never find him. When I awaken in the morning, he has the tenacity to fly over my head with a companion. I squish them both on the slanted ceiling of our bedroom, where they leave streaks of blood. I hope Oona and Albert don’t think I’ve really taken the Passion Play too literally.