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The Passion Play of Oberammergau

In 1633 a miracle saved this German village.

Old theatre seats

I got the call in October.

A man and woman were visiting from a place called Oberammergau, a German village of only 5,200 people in the Bavarian Alps. They were actors, the caller said, in a huge amateur theater production to be staged in the summer and fall of 2010, a passion play. Would I be interested in speaking with them and writing about the play?

I hesitated. German community theater? All amateur actors? Maybe, if I wasn’t so busy. The caller was insistent. “It’s a big deal,” he kept saying.

“Let me get back to you,” I stalled.

A few clicks on my computer and I was in Bavaria, best known for oompah bands and Oktoberfest. The name of the village, I learned, was pronounced OH-burr-am-er-gow. A few clicks more and I began reading a tale hundreds of years old: It was 1633. Germany was entrenched in war and pestilence.

In Oberammergau, nearly 100 people had died from the plague. The entire village gathered in prayer, pleading for their lives. In return, they pledged to re-enact the life and suffering of Jesus every 10 years. Presumably, God heard their prayers. Not another life was lost to the plague. The next year the village came together again to perform its first passion play.

And the people of Oberammergau have kept their promise for 376 years! I looked down at my notepad. I had filled it with questions. I hoped it wasn’t too late to meet the actors.

The next day I found myself sitting across from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Back home in Germany, they’re better known as Frederik Mayet, a 30-year-old publicist, and Eva-Maria Reiser, a 25-year-old flight attendant.

His light brown hair touched his shoulders. A neatly trimmed moustache and beard framed a warm smile. Her hair was pulled back. Neither had cut their hair since Ash Wednesday the previous February—a requirement for the actors. Men aren’t allowed to trim their beards. An exception is made for Jesus, Frederik said.

At first it was hard to imagine Frederik as the King of Kings. In his polo shirt he could’ve passed for a surfer. I peered into his eyes. He seemed so youthful and a bit nervous. Then I remembered: Jesus began his ministry at the same age. He too had been young, just starting out. I’d never thought of Jesus being unsure of himself.

That’s the magic of Oberammergau, Frederik said. Watching untrained actors, all from the village, the audience feels a connection. The anger of the mob, the anguish of Jesus, the fear of the disciples become real. “What we do onstage jumps to the audience,” Frederik said. “We touch them. Their belief is strengthened. They see new aspects to the story and come away with a deeper understanding.”

I felt myself moving to the edge of my seat as he and Eva-Maria spoke.

It was clear they weren’t professional actors. They didn’t overwhelm me with star power. Yet they had an unmistakable confidence, mixed with a humble purposefulness. This was something more than just a production. They were keepers of a treasure passed down through generations of townsfolk, a great, historical act of gratitude.

Excitedly, they told me about the play, how it includes 50 live animals, a chorus of 100, accompanied by an orchestra. It takes half the village to pull it off, either as a cast member—the stage is sometimes crowded with 1,000 performers—or in one of the 1,400 behind-the-scenes jobs.

Everything about it seemed epic. The performance, all in German, runs for five hours with a three-hour break for dinner. It’s a combination of the re-enactment of Christ’s last days, choral works and tableaus from the Old Testament, meant to show the connections between the Old and New Testaments. More than 500,000 people will travel to Oberammergau to watch this year’s performances, about a third from the U.S.

I thought about the volunteer events I’ve been involved in, how much work goes into them. How do the villagers do it?

“It’s a crazy time, but a very nice time,” Eva-Maria said. “It draws everyone together. You meet so many new people, new friends.”

The more they talked, the more I got a sense for how deeply the Passion is embedded in the fabric of Oberammergau. It sustains the community—financially, socially, spiritually. Families celebrate it together decade after decade, watching as roles are passed down through generations. Spouses recall how they met during rehearsals. The blessings from those prayers said centuries ago are still being counted.

Rehearsals start in November. Actors practice for five and a half months, five days a week, late into the evening after they get off work. They do little else but work, sleep, eat and rehearse. But it’s exhilarating, they said.

“We rehearse together, talk about it together, laugh together and discuss together,” Frederik said. Slowly, they find themselves taking on the emotions of their characters, understanding them, becoming them. When the play opens May 15, the transformation must be complete. That night, the audience needs to feel it’s there when Jesus faces Pilate, terrified by the intensity of 1,000 people shouting, “Crucify him!”

The challenge for the actors, Frederik said, is physical as well as emotional. As Jesus, he’ll hang on the cross for 20 minutes. Even with the support of a harness, it will be exhausting. But conveying Christ’s mental toil, he said, will be even tougher. He talked of the scene when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“You realize how human he was,” Frederik said. “He was afraid. He sweats blood because he doesn’t know where to go. Then he says, ‘I know my way is the way of the Father.’ And he goes his way. That’s the key scene in the play for me.”

Before my eyes Frederik became Jesus. I could see him in his robe. His eyes, I hadn’t realized how piercing they were. I wanted to reach out to him.

Then the interview was over. Others were waiting their turn. We shook hands and parted ways. I couldn’t get Frederik and Eva-Maria out of my mind. It was as if they’d started telling me an incredible story, then stopped just when it got interesting.

It’s a story I know well, yet it felt as if there was something more to learn. I knew where I had to go. It might be 10 years before I’d get there, but I was bound for Oberammergau.

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