The Ammergau Mountains lie an hour south of Munich and form a verdant prelude to the Bavarian Alps. Amongst them, in a deep valley, nestles the mediaeval village of Oberammergau. On a hot summer’s day storms can form quickly out of the clear blue sky: sunbeams scatter and burst from behind darkening nimbi, and majestic thunderheaded anvils roil behind the iron cross high on Kofel, the rocky spire that dominates the village. Even nowadays it doesn’t take much imagination to apprehend the Almighty near at hand.
If it feels that way today, it must have seemed all the more like it in the seventeenth century. In 1633, the villagers of Oberammergau faced dark times. Black Death was sweeping the continent, visiting even the sleepiest backwaters of Bavaria. The Burghers of Oberammergau assembled in their Lord’s house and prayed for deliverance. They proposed a deal: spare our village from this plague now and, for the hereafter, it will glory your name by performing a passion-play, once a decade.
From that day, so legend has it, no further lives were lost and, ever since, the locals have kept their side of the bargain (with some additional centenaries thrown in, and the odd war years skipped), and 2010 sees the forty-first production of the “Passionsspiele”. As per the original sacred covenant, the production remains entirely local: to be even a stage-hand you must have been born in the village or lived in it for at least twenty years.
That’s the story, and it has been handed down, embellished and retreaded through the centuries to the point where it is certified folklore, and those of its oddities which don’t bear close examination generally don’t get it. It isn’t sporting to ask questions like, why only once a decade? Does the bargain not seem a pragmatic, faithless and rather un-Christian compromise? What would happen if the villagers stopped doing the play? Would an avenging cloak of Black Death envelope the town?
In any case, times move on. At some point the imposition represented by the covenant was eclipsed by the commercial opportunity it presented, and you fancy that, these days, they’d stage the play whether or not they feared a plague on their houses. For every ten years Christians and fellow travellers from around the world make the pilgrimage to Oberammergau in their hundreds of thousands. Jerome K. Jerome wrote a
droll account of his journey in 1890. Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) visited in 1980. And a certain German chancellor, best not mentioned these days, visited and declared himself very satisfied with the play’s reflection of his own vision for the good people of Germany (not to mention those of Jerusalem) in 1934.
But Oberammergau is by no means just for the great and (or) good or devout: My mother (a curious but un-energetic Presbyterian from Auckland) visited in 1960 as a twenty-two-year-old, returned again twenty years later with my father (an equally unenthusiastic Anglican), and returned thirty years later still, this summer, with her son and his wife (both enthusiastically none of the above).
Undeniably, there is something very special about the place and the play. To be sure: this is no church hall nativity nightmare of amateur dramatics: Nearly all of the townsfolk are involved in the production in some capacity or other; the cast numbers in the hundreds and features real donkeys, sheep, horses, camels and poultry, a full orchestra and fifty-strong choir. Oberammergau’s men abstain from shaving and cutting their hair for a year leading up to the performances. The dedicated theatre seats 5,000 and is rammed, five nights a week, continuously for five months of the season in any weather (until 2010 the stage was open-air; now it has a retractable roof), and each performance, not counting a three-hour meal break, lasts five and a half hours. It’s in German, but has a solemnity and magnificence of scope which transcends the language barrier (and with a translation of the script to hand, it’s not that much of a barrier in any case).
Over its season Oberammergau welcomes upwards of half a million visitors. To cope with the proverbial “dramatic influx”, the locals open their houses to visitors.
And here, too, it seemed to us that the Almighty might be taking an interest. In 1960 my mother was billeted with Benedikt Stükl, cast as Caiaphas, the high-priest (his son Peter being in the chorus). Twenty years later, on her return she stayed, quite by chance, with the same family, Benedikt now having been elevated to play Annas, the elder priest of the High Council and Peter, with a teenage daughter of his own in the choir, now playing Caiaphas. This year, again quite by chance, we found ourselves staying with same family again. This time Peter’s daughter, now 47, was running the Gasthof and appearing with her own children in the chorus, her brother Christian directed the play, father Peter was a white-bearded Annas, and grandfather Benedikt is now (one hopes, having portrayed the villain so many times) in an altogether better place.
Oberammergau, and its passion play, pose questions for the Bavarians and their way of life: maintaining a four-hundred year-old tradition participation in which is limited to village lifers, is a symbol of the conservatism and insularity for which the locals are notorious. The demographic of the hordes that flock to see the play is singular: they’re mostly German and in the latter half of life; they’re generally well-to-do, and they’re absolutely all white. This much is characteristic of the region which is stunningly beautiful, well-tended and maintained: to preserve those surrounds, attitudes require buildings (and, on a Sunday, dress) to conform to styles a hundred or more years old, defiantly despiting Anglo-Saxon sniggers at grown men in leather shorts. There is little appetite here for modernity, and while this makes for a refreshing, stunning, peaceful escape from the city, you fancy the cost for the young folk is a stultifying and oppressive existence. There’s an undeniable tweeness about the place.
Yet curiously not a hint of tweeness makes it into the production itself. It is stylish, grave, emotional and, in its current iteration, modern. It also conveys entirely the strong community bond of the village. When the play opens with Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and the full cast, from grandparents down to a three month old baby, you get a real sense of this being a presentation of the whole community. When a mother in the crowd reins in her errant children, you know these really are their own children, and she really is reining them in.
The orchestra, choir and the music were consistently impressive: without being an expert I would put the music in the German style of a Mozart mass – possibly not as histrionic, and it was dealt with serenely by the orchestra and a large choir dressed in androgynous ankle-length smocks with headdresses which invoke Virgil when accompanying Dante in his divine comedy. The sight of these nearly fifty angelic beings arrayed across the massive stage was striking and solemn.
While this might be still a most conservative Catholic Christian town, the 2010 production, in a gentle way, has its revolutionary aspects. Jesus is portrayed as a political revolutionary and not, even remotely, as a supernatural being. The scriptwriters have taken some notice of recent cause célèbres of Christian revisionism: There’s a hint – though nothing more – of a “thing” between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Post Dan Brown this seems an almost orthodox idea, but would have been sacrilege even thirty years ago.
Yet, Jesus’ aim is still the conservative one of returning to the literal word of God; he casts aside the pragmatic accommodations that Caiaphas and his coterie have tolerated such as the money-changers in the temple. In a way, this is as conservative a reading as you could ask for. Here the Passionplay’s famous “tableaux vivants” – living still lives, interposed with the acts of the production – add to dramatic punch, and tie in this “progressive” aspect to the tradition from which the revolutionary New Testament sprang: the Old Testament itself. Of course, one has to be selective to find Old Testament tableaux which are consonant with any reading of the New Testament, but the producers have been careful, and the tableaux do make a point. Lord only knows, the money-changers have been running riot since Oberammergau last staged its play, and in its way the values this event represents, both explicitly through its message and through its very existence at all, stand as a bulwark against our commercial predilections.
Nonetheless, modernity, as with all compromises, has its price. The jettisoning of the mystical might appeal to the contemporary secular (not many of whom were in evidence in the crowd), but the play lacked a little of the “spiritual” wonder which sets Jesus’ story alight in the first place. Reduced to low political intrigue, the Passionsspiele omits something important. The Sanhedrin’s human motivations might drive the narrative, but they’re not what makes it special.
In its eagerness cater for modern pluralism and to give a better account of the Jewishness of the story, the production redeems Judas a step too far: in the first act he is the dominant and most fervent disciple – shading even Peter and Simon, who usually fill that role. Later, even when his commitment wavers, he has to be tricked by Caiaphas into betraying Jesus, and when he realises what he has done, he tries directly to undo it, producing the most public and defiant defence of the arrested Jesus from any of the disciples. Indeed, the “redeemed Judas” resembled the one from C.K. Stead’s recent novel “My Name Was Judas
”. Peter, meanwhile, denies all knowledge, as we know he must, but when he is thereby outdone in his fidelity by the traitor, someone’s got their theological wires crossed.
In his time of death, Judas even outdoes Jesus. Wracked with remorse, Judas soliloquises earnestly and lengthily before hanging himself. By contrast Jesus says very little in his second act, whilst Caiaphas, Nicodemus, Pilate and others trade voluble insults without really achieving anything.
The resurrection is handled quickly, and again somewhat secularly: Jesus does make a final appearance, silently - but it’s more in the nature of a pre-close curtain call than an inspirational visitation, and as the cast and choir finally file off the stage at the conclusion, all that remains to receive the applause was a flickering flame.