‘It’s My Tradition Too’: A Town’s Centuries-Old Passion Play Evolves
OBERAMMERGAU, Germany — This is a town of wild-haired men. Their locks are scruffy, scraggly; tousled for the boys, and wispy for those whose boyhoods were long ago. There are beards, too, sported by those old enough to grow facial hair — generally ungroomed, and bushy.
Once per decade, in fulfillment of a vow they made in 1633 and have honored ever since, the townspeople here collectively re-enact the story of Jesus’s suffering and death, and in an effort to look more like the people they are portraying, on Ash Wednesday the year before the Passion Play, hundreds and hundreds of villagers cease cutting their hair.
That’s why Christian Stückl, the Passion Play’s longtime director and relentless reformer, knew something was up on the day he noticed a short-haired boy peering at rehearsals from the doorway of a nearby garage. The memory is vivid, even though it was two decades ago. “You’re not participating?” Stückl asked.
“No,” the boy explained. “We’re Muslim.”
The boy’s name was Abdullah Kenan Karaca, and after Stückl promised his parents there would be no efforts at evangelism, the 11-year-old joined the town’s other children in one of the play’s massive crowd scenes.
That early exposure to theater was life-altering for Karaca, who is now 33 and a freelance director. It was also one of many steps in a little-by-little evolution of the show, which had a long history of restrictive casting rules, but this year, for the first time, has two Muslims in principal roles: Cengiz Görür, 22, who stars as Judas, and who thought he might try selling cars until Stückl persuaded him to go to acting school, and Karaca, who plays Nicodemus, a follower of Jesus, and serves as the production’s deputy director. Both men grew up in Oberammergau and are sons of Turkish immigrants.
“I know my family doesn’t go back to the beginning of the vow, but still,” Karaca said. “It’s my tradition too.”
The Passion Play, staged 42 times since 1634, this year opened in May, delayed two years by the coronavirus pandemic, and runs through Oct. 2. Renowned for its scale as well as its constancy, it has a current cast of 1,400 adults and 400 children, or about one-third of the town’s 5,400 residents; an onstage menagerie that includes a donkey for Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, and horses, camels, sheep, goats, chickens and homing pigeons.
Anton Preisinger Jr. and Amelie Kutschker, a donkey handler, backstage at a recent performance.
Presented on an open-air stage at the front of a 4,384-seat covered theater, it draws a sizable audience — in normal years, about 450,000 attendees over 110 performances, making it an economic driver for this small community in a scenic rural area heavily reliant on tourism. In the years between productions, visitors are still drawn by the area’s mountains (nestled in the Alps, the town has a distinctive white-rock peak called the Kofel) and its castles (Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale favorite, is not far), but its Passion Play is foundational, attracting travelers who pack local inns and restaurants and buy the Christian icons and trinkets that line shop shelves.
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“The passion play has a really important role for the community of Oberammergau because everybody participates,” said Andreas Rödl, the town’s 37-year-old mayor, “the people onstage, the people that sell woodcarvings, the people that sell coffee, the hotels and the gastronomy.” Rödl first appeared in the play at age 4, met his wife in the cast in 2010, and this year performs in the choir.
The cast this year is down about 600 people — many dropped out because they couldn’t take huge amounts of time off from work or school after having already made those arrangements two years ago. And Covid remains a constant complication: Regular cast testing turns up a stream of positive cases, forcing adaptation. Two performers alternate in each principal role, so there is some built-in backup, but still, there are crises, like the day when both men playing the thieves crucified alongside Jesus tested positive, forcing Stückl to enlist two of Jesus’s disciples to die on the cross.
The passion play has three storytelling forms: narrative scenes with dialogue, oratorio-like songs performed by a large choir and tableaux vivants of Old Testament moments. Although described as theater by its creative team, the show has devotional roots, and much of its audience — especially the English-speaking tourist base, which consists largely of Christian tour groups, many from the United States — sees it as a religious expression. (It began as a faith-based response to plague-related deaths.)
“We are Christian, and it’s going to just renew our beliefs,” said Dianne Borck, an attendee from Canberra, Australia. “We’ve been to Israel, we’ve been to the sites where all this took place, and that’s why we’re here.”
The play is not only famous, but infamous, because it has a long history of antisemitic storytelling and exclusionary casting practices. In the 1930s, Hitler saw the play (twice) and loved it; deep into the 20th century some Jewish characters wore horns. Non-Catholics, including Protestants, were not assigned speaking roles; married women, as well as women over 35, were barred from the cast. Today, those practices have been dropped, and all local children are allowed to perform, but adults can do so only if they were born in town or have lived here for 20 years, a rule that was initially imposed to keep out East Germans fleeing Communism, according to Stückl, who called the restrictions “a stupid tradition.”
I saw the Oberammergau Passion Play once before, in 1990, when I was a young reporter writing stories about Germany while on a journalism fellowship; I had no idea that I would go on to cover religion and then theater. At that time the play still included the notorious blood curse, a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew that condemns Jews for the death of Jesus and has been used for centuries by some to justify antisemitism.
That was the first time Stückl directed the play — the town council, by a one-vote margin, had awarded him the position in 1986, when he was just 24 — and all of his actions were carefully scrutinized. For about a century, neither the text nor the sets had changed significantly — proposed revisions in the 1970s had failed — and when Stückl took over, a Catholic theologian was appointed to review every alteration he suggested, and a town hall secretary named to track all edits; he was barred from removing the blood curse by a vote of the town council.
But Stückl, who was born in Oberammergau and still lives here, even while also leading a theater about 55 miles north in Munich, stuck with it — his grandfather played Caiaphas, his father played Caiaphas, but he knew early he’d rather run the show. “Sometimes I have the feeling I’ve been born for this,” he said. Each decade, he has accumulated more freedom to make change, he added, and, over time, the pace of that change has quickened: no religious test for leading roles, more speaking parts for women, and a growing emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and his circle, driven home when, before each production, Stückl takes the principal actors to Israel.
“It’s not only to see the holy places, but also we have a very deep discussion about our belief about Jesus, which as a normal hotel manager I would never do,” said Anton Preisinger, a 54-year-old who runs the Hotel Alte Post, and who plays Pontius Pilate, a role his father also once played. (His grandfather played Jesus.) Preisinger said he can still remember when Pilate was depicted as “a good man who wants to protect Jesus,” whereas now he is portrayed as “a cruel emperor who killed with no reaction.”
All the male Jewish characters, whether they support Jesus or oppose him, wear skullcaps. (At a dinner this month, Passion Play actors and American Jewish college students traded tips on how best to keep skullcaps from falling off.) Jesus recites several blessings in Hebrew, and, in an innovation first introduced in 2010, the entire Jewish community — meaning hundreds of actors onstage — sings Shema Yisrael, the quintessential Jewish prayer. The blood curse has been dropped, and Jesus’s death sentence is pronounced and performed by the Roman government — at one point, Pilate is shown making a slashing motion across his neck as he floats the idea to high priest Caiaphas — with support from some, but not all, in the Jewish community.
The changes have attracted attention from some of the play’s tenacious critics. This month the American Jewish Committee gave Stückl, who is now 60, its Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership; the committee is the same entity whose leadership in 1980 called Oberammergau “the international capital” of religious antisemitism, and four years later decried the play as “unmistakably antisemitic.”
Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, gave Stückl an illuminated copy of the Shema prayer during a ceremony attended by the town’s mayor as well as a local Catholic priest and Protestant bishop, saying that Stückl “took a play that was sadly infamous for its hundreds of years of antisemitic tropes and visuals and transformed it.”
In an interview, Marans said the play is not perfect — he still has concerns about the depiction of Caiaphas — but that “the progress is monumental.”
And why does Oberammergau matter? Marans said passion plays have over time been used as “a catalyst for violence against Jews,” and Oberammergau, he said, is “the gold standard” of passion plays. But also, he added, there is symbolic significance for a play staged in Bavaria, which he called “the former heartland of Nazism,” and which, he said, “after the Holocaust did not confront its history of antisemitism and anti-Judaism,” even as Christians elsewhere were doing just that.
Frederik Mayet, a 42-year-old who is playing Jesus for the second time, said he recently revisited the 1970 script, and was stunned. “It’s just 50 years old, but you could not play this text any more — it’s so far away from us or the world in which we are living right now,” Mayet said. “You always need to work on it, and bring it to the people of the day.”
This year’s production depicts Jesus as a fiery and frustrated social reformer whose ideas have polarized the Jewish community.
“What’s really important is the story we are telling. The focus is now more on that,” Karaca said. “Still we are always fighting — or talking, discussing — in our village about the rules of participation and the other stuff, but I have the feeling it’s shifted a bit more to the story.”
Stückl said that, given the high number of refugees in Germany, he felt it was more important this year to focus on Jesus’s attention to outcasts than to his challenging of traditional religious practices.
Increasingly, townspeople seem at peace with the idea that each production can meet its moment. “Every play has its own type of Jesus, in its time,” said Ursula Mayr, an architect who plays Veronica, the woman who wipes Jesus’s face with a cloth. Hers is not a huge role, but, Mayr noted ruefully, there aren’t that many big roles for women in the Bible. She’s performing alongside her husband, their two children, and her parents; for most in the all-amateur cast, being in the show means nearly a year of juggling rehearsal or performance time with holding down a job and family obligations.
The play was deep into rehearsals in March 2020 when the coronavirus prompted lockdowns that forced the show’s cancellation. The entire run was already 95 percent sold out, so the move was devastating, and led to layoffs at hotels and restaurants in town. Stückl quickly decided to wait two years to try again, in part inspired by history, because that’s how long the play was delayed in 1920 (citing World War I casualties), and in part because of the practicalities of refunding all those tickets and then starting up again.
This year, when the cast gathered for rehearsals in January, it was unclear whether the show could actually happen. There were still rules in Germany that would have limited the audience to 25 percent capacity, and international travel was way down. By the time performances began, in May, restrictions had been lifted, but international visitors, who normally make up 75 percent of the spectators, are nonetheless down to about 50 percent, because of concerns about the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, according to Walter Rutz, the show’s managing director. He said the production is doing better than feared, largely thanks to an unexpected boom in German visitors who have rediscovered the joys of domestic tourism during the pandemic; he said the season began just 75 percent sold, but that attendance has picked up over the course of the run, and has recently passed 88 percent.
Although Germans of Turkish ancestry often report challenges feeling fully accepted in this country, Karaca and Görür both said they could recall no instances of racism or discrimination in Oberammergau. “It was really beautiful to grow up here,” Karaca said. “I mean, I knew that we were not going to church,” he added, but “I never had the feeling as though I was different.”
Görür said some eyebrows were raised when he was cast as Judas, but that no one confronted him directly with concerns, and the surprise abated once he started performing. “There is now an acceptance,” he said. “They acknowledge me. They accept me. They accept the fact that a Muslim is playing Judas. It was a short time that people were talking negative about that.”
Many Oberammergauers describe participation in the Passion Play as a primary form of social life here — as a way townspeople get to know one another across generational lines. Karaca remembers his first time in the Passion Play mostly as fun — the children onstage vied with one another to see who could touch Jesus first during a large crowd scene. Now, he said, his religion comes up mostly on the mornings when he gives an introductory talk to English-speaking visitors (the play is staged in German) who are puzzled by his name.
“They ask me a few times, ‘What was your name again? Abdullah? You’re Catholic? ‘No, Muslim.’ You see in their faces, they’re irritated, but still think that I’m a nice guy.”
Rutz, the managing director, whose family has been in town since the 1633 vow, and who this year plays Joseph of Arimathea, said change has become its own tradition. “We play the passion play every 10 years — that’s the tradition,” he said. “But tradition is not always the same. Tradition is life.”