At 10.30 a.m. the coach stops in Oberammergau in front of the Landhotel Böld and lets a crowd of chattering Americans get off. You can check Linderhof Palace off your to-do list, you have just visited it – it is one of the fabulously bombastic magnificent buildings of Ludwig II, the mythical Bavarian fairytale king.
“Now it’s time for lunch,” says Claudia Hans, owner of the hotel. Your team is prepared, breakfast has long been cleared, the tables are set again. “The guests eat between half past eleven and half past twelve,” she says, “then they make their way to the Passionstheater.”
There are passion plays again in the Bavarian Alpine village, which is 20 kilometers north of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The first Passion Play in twelve years and not the usual ten years – in 2020 the performances had to be canceled due to Corona. The organizers around the well-known theater man Christian Stückl postponed it to 2022. Although Covid-19 still exists, all major events are again permitted without restrictions in Germany, including the Passion.
By the autumn, 450,000 visitors are expected to come to the wooden festival hall for around 100 performances of the play about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Oberammergau itself has, to put that in perspective, 5400 inhabitants. A third of them are themselves on stage at this largest amateur theater in the world – 1400 adults and 450 children. Most have small, silent roles, they are in the “people”. It’s a huge spectacle, which, at least outside of Bavaria, is viewed with amazement and often a little astonished.
Sophie Schuster comes to the theater café. The slim 26-year-old has long dark hair and wears jeans and sneakers. “We’re really in the flow now,” she says. The woman from Oberammergau has a major role, she plays Mary Magdalene – the companion of Jesus who, according to the Bible, was present at the crucifixion and resurrection. Afterwards she will go in through the stage door, on this day she is on stage. All major roles are occupied by two actors, one would not be able to cope with the workload.
“Now people are back,” she says, “and it’s really nice that we can play.” In real life, Sophie Schuster studies marketing. “But I’ll take this half year with me,” she emphasizes. She reduces her studies to a minimum. The many people, the hustle and bustle in the village – it doesn’t seem to bother her or anyone else in Oberammergau. Rather, they enjoy it. “I like the people and when it’s full,” she says. “And working together in a team is great and enriching.”
However, she has hardly anything to do with the Catholic Church, which also applies to almost all Passion performers. In April 2020, she showed the completely empty theater during a first joint tour, she was all alone on the stage. When she steps into the limelight as Maria Magdalena, 4,500 pairs of eyes look at her. Nervous? “Oh, it’s okay,” she says, rather jaded.
Around 12.30 p.m., as the hotel manager Claudia Hans described it, the thousands of visitors make their way to the Passionstheater. The first part starts at 2:30 p.m. Many are in groups, led by men or women who hold plaques high so no one gets lost. The village seems to burst. You can hear Americans and Brits talking, see Asians and Africans, meet Hessians and Hamburgers.
The average age is high, many visitors come with sticks, walkers or are pushed in wheelchairs. Many wear blankets and cushions, because the wooden chairs in the theater are considered hard, and you need stamina to play in Oberammergau. Passion is a time waster: the first part lasts from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., then there is a three-hour break for dinner. At 8 p.m. we continue until the resurrection at around 10:30 p.m.
Also in the long line to get in is Richard Adamson, a tall, burly American from California, 65 years old. “I chose Passiontide to visit friends in Germany,” he says. He’s here for two days. “Then we continue camping in the Black Forest”. The bookseller Monika Schwarz watches the crowds in front of her shop not far from the theater. “It’s an honor for us in Oberammergau to see the journeys people take,” she says. She just sold Oberammergau T-shirts to a group of Australians in the store.
Without the vow none of this would exist in the village. In 1633 the plague raged, killing 80 residents. When the plague disappeared, people kept their promise: every ten years they play the Passion in gratitude. There are similar ones elsewhere, but Oberammergau is by far the largest in the world. Every resident has the right to play.
Intendant Stückl, a long-haired, rustic Bavarian, this time put an angry, doubting, even desperate Jesus on the stage, who braces himself against poverty and misery in the world. And how do you deal with the Ukraine war?
Frederik Mayet, one of the Jesus actors, doesn’t have a simple answer. “We talked a lot about it,” he says. “Jesus should be a lot louder and be heard a lot more.” Cengiz Görür, 22, plays Judas. Like all the actors, he has a beard and longer hair, as cutting and shaving have been banned for them for the last year. Görür is the first actor in a major role with Turkish roots. “In the beginning it was difficult for some Oberammergau residents that Judas is a Muslim,” he says. “But now that’s no longer a question.” Just as self-confident as it is natural, he says: “I’m from Oberammergau too.”
When the game is on, the village is empty and during the break it is full. People wander through the pretty little streets with the Alpine houses, look at the shops for sweaters made of sheep’s wool, seat covers and lots of carvings – Jesus, little angels or a shepherd dog. There are also many FC Bayern fan articles and an open Christmas market.
Oberammergau is definitely a tightly scheduled mass performance. Arrangements with one or two overnight stays can be booked. In addition to a visit to the theatre, the Ludwigs-Schloss Linderhof, Ettal Abbey and possibly a short trip to Munich are on the program for the tourists. If you want to stay longer, you should choose a passion-free year. The game is organized by a community-owned company and should make a decent profit.
Many spectators are moved by the monumental performance. The actors also have their passages that demand the most from them. Cengiz Görür immediately thinks of Judas’ “scene of despair” – “where I immediately have to hang myself afterwards”. His last sentence: “Come on, snake, ensnare me, strangle the traitor.”
Sophie Schuster is allowed to stay longer on stage as Maria Magdalena. She sees the crucifixion and immediately afterwards the resurrection as a “crass change”. First she says: “My soul, it lives for you.” And then: “Hallelujah, he has risen.” After the end she needs one to two hours to find peace. “When you come fresh from the resurrection, you don’t fall straight into bed.”