Bavarian Passion plays to global crowds

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Oberammergau


A village in Germany's Bavarian Alps is re-enacting the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ - as it has done since 1634.

Back then, the villagers of Oberammergau pledged to stage a Passion play every decade if they were spared from the plague.

This year about half of the village's 5,000 inhabitants are taking part, despite recent scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in Germany.

But the play, which runs from May until October and attracts visitors from round the world, has been plagued by the financial crisis.

In a cafe in Oberammergau, Jesus enjoys a last drink among people he has known all his life. He also knows that tomorrow, some of them will mock and betray him and nail him to the cross.

In real life Andreas Richter is a child psychologist. But for most of this year he is working part-time.

Three times a week this tall, thoughtful young man plays the role of Jesus Christ. At 33 - the age of Jesus - he certainly looks the part. But how does it feel to be on that cross?

"When the cross is put up, everybody's looking at you," Andreas said, backstage among large angel wings and blue robes hanging neatly on clothes rails.

"But after two minutes, nobody recognises you up there. It's tough. When I think about it, I feel the sadness and the cruelty. It's cold, you're alone and you die."

'Greatest village'

The power of the Passion play is that it brings the village together every 10 years. The sheer scale of the show is stunning. In some scenes hundreds of people fill the stage, along with live donkeys, horses, sheep and even a camel.

Image caption,
Andreas Richter is cast as Jesus - a great honour in the village

Most of Andreas Richter's family take part, including his five-month old son.

For Mr Richter, this is about tradition rather than faith.

"It's a big pride to play this part, the community chose me to play this role," he explained. "Every 10 years, fathers and grandfathers and children come together and go out on the stage and play this important story. It's part of our life. It fixes the community."

Only those who were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for 20 years can take part. But not everyone is your typical Bavarian.

Anton Lel, who describes Oberammergau as "the greatest village ever," was actually born in Kazakhstan. He took time off his university studies to play one of the temple guards who capture Jesus and hand him to the Romans.

"It feels pretty good," he laughed. "It's a lot more fun to play a bad guy!"

Everywhere are straggly beards and flowing locks. As part of the preparations for the passion play Mayor Arno Nunn passed the traditional Hair Decree on Ash Wednesday last year, asking men to grow their hair and stop shaving.

Conspicuously, the mayor is clean-shaven. He is not allowed to take part in the play because he has only lived in Oberammergau for 12 years. His role is to ensure that it remains a multi-million business for the village.

Expensive treat

Ten years ago half a million people came to see the show, many from North America and Britain. But this year the financial crisis has hit like a modern-day plague.

"We suffer from the crisis," Mr Nunn said. "Visitors have been reduced by 20%."

The mayor blames the unfavourable dollar and pound exchange rate against the euro. Travel agents also point out that ticket prices have doubled since 2000 and that hotels in the village have become so expensive that many prefer to stay in nearby towns or over the border in Austria.

The number of tourists in Oberammergau is significant because the passion play tends to give a significant boost to US bookings in Europe every decade.

But they are still coming by the coachload for what many call a once in a lifetime experience.

Image caption,
The event is a prime tourist draw for the village

Kim Fuchs from San Francisco stopped in Oberammergau as part of a grand tour of Europe, costing 10,000 dollars for a family of four.

"We'll be eating porridge after this, but it's OK!" Kim laughed, holding an ice-cream cone. Sheila Lyons, from Chelmsford in the UK, came with a church group. "It took us two years, so we prepared ourselves financially. We ignored the recession - what will be will be!"

Jacob Ang, from Singapore, sported an Oberammergau cap. His daughter Patricia said they were on a pilgrimage of Catholic shrines in Europe.

"My dad is 82 so for him, it's now or never. Sometimes you can't put a price tag to some things!"

International outlook

Oberammergau is now looking to attract more visitors from China, India and Brazil.

Over the last 20 years, the Passion play has been rewritten to remove anti-Semitic undertones. Protestants and married women have, somewhat reluctantly, been allowed on stage.

And now, for the first time, village residents of Turkish origin are taking part. By 2020, could one of them even play Jesus? I asked Otto Huber, the deputy director of the passion play.

"Actually I feel very much like somebody who lives in a global world," Mr Huber said. "In Oberammergau, spectators come from everywhere. So why not in the casting?"

He showed me the graveyard, with traditional carvings of Christ on the cross rising among the flowers.

This is where the people of Oberammergau first performed the passion play in 1634, over the fresh graves of those who had died in the plague. Among them were Otto Huber's relatives. Ever since, his family has kept the vow.

The world may be changing fast, but this small Bavarian village seems determined to keep its passion play alive for generations to come.

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