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The miracle of the fish: Oberammergau


Imagine this: you hand over €150.00 and someone confines you to a seat (wooden and uncomfortable) for nearly seven hours. You are made to watch grown men run around speaking a foreign language. Although dramatic, you know the story, you know the characters, you know the ending, there is a no possibility of visiting the toilet and for the last three hours it gets too dark to read the novel you’ve brought with you in case of boredom. The near fanaticism and devotion to the protagonists of the audience that surrounds you means that when eventually when it is all over you know it certainly won’t be the done thing to conclude on the bus home: “well, not bad but a bit long, no?

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re at a major world tournament watching England attempting to play football. But no, in this case it’s not a description of the Three Lions’ inevitable exit to Germany (or similar) on penalties in any given world cup. It is in fact the once-in-a-decade Passion Play in Oberammergau, Bavaria I was paid to attend last week as part of my job as a Tour Guide. Oberammergau is a small and extremely gemütlich village with just over 5000 mostly Catholic souls in Bavaria, a mere stones throw from the famous ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and within commuting distance of Munich. Every ten years since 1634 (with only two exceptions) the good folk of the village have gotten together and performed their version of Christ’s Passion as thanks for sparing them from the terrible plague or ‘Black Death’ that was scything through the area nearly 400 years ago.

Specifically the play tells the story of Jesus’ last days in a manner that makes Mel Gibson’s Hollywood effort look like a short at some film festival. The 4000 strong audience are mainly Catholics from all over the world, many on a pilgrimage. Attending is almost a rite of passage. Not enjoying it akin to blasphemy. I do not count myself in these ranks, I am not religious, was not on a pilgrimage and only really in row 6 seat 96 as I was paid to be there.  Yet when given the very easy option of simply not returning for the second half, but relaxing with a Bavarian beer in one of the towns many bars, I was right there in a very non ‘peace be with all line’, being pushed on my way to the centre of the row, novel tucked firmly away in my bag. This is why after the break I decided to come back…

With a big interval Bavarian roast lunch washed down with a couple of stein of weissbier there were at least three reasons not to go back when the second half started at 2.30 pm, and instead just enjoy being the only person in Oberammergau not crammed into the town theatre like a sardine. However, enough about the first half had captivated me to make me wonder whether my initial decision never to return merited a re-think. The grand entry into Jerusalem complete with live donkeys and goats, hundreds of extras and music to boot with which the play opens had been spectacular enough, but as the various Jewish priest got bogged down into their on-stage seemingly endless squabbles it had been tempting to stray from the action into the world of my brought for such an eventuality book.

It was still a close call right up to the final call for the second half, but just before entering I was swayed by the combined thought of, ‘just how many once in a decade performances, or events even, do I know?’ and ‘there are worse things than being paid to watch theatre’. You get two and half Olympics for every Passion Play, England lose the football world cup or don’t qualify up to three times in the same period and after any more steins preferred to the Play, my group could be forgiven for thinking for questioning my dedicated. Oh well in for a penny…

As a matter of fact you needn’t struggle for reasons to attend. There is so much fascinating history surrounding the Play and so many of those ‘cool facts’ that my groups love to hear on the mike. For a start of the 5000 or so inhabitants in Oberammergau, more than 2000 take part. To this village it is a BIG deal! Had I ever seen something that meant so much to a community before? The director of this year Christian Stückl was also the director of the 2000 performance, which he directed aged only 27. He had been hanging around the purpose built theatre since he could barely walk and legend has it begged the mayor to let him direct when he was only 23. For his first ‘Passion’ as the locals call the Play he directed both his father and his grandfather. A year before they, like the other male cast would have signed up for ‘no more shave day’. 365 days later when the play begins, their beards are incredible, local barber shops bust!

The historical roots run deep and are equally fascinating. When God supposedly spared the people of Oberammergau from any further deaths during the terrible plague that was wiping out whole villages surrounding them in 1633, the grateful villagers swore they would show their gratitude by performing Christ’s Passion every ten years forever more. The first performance by 60 or 70 villagers was literally on top of the graves of those that had fallen victim to the plague the previous year. Since 1634, no more ‘Black Deaths’ are recorded in Oberammergau annals. Miracle? Coincidence? Interesting at least.

Another reason to go back; the controversy over the Play itself. First there is the text. Adolf Hitler used to simply love the Passion Play. It is a little known and now even less publicised fact that as part of his Holidays in Germany campaign aimed at getting the German economy going you could earn points to eventually buy a Volkswagen Beetle simply by travelling to Oberammergau and witnessing the Jews condemn Christ. Since 1940 as you can imagine it’s anti-Semitic nature has changed considerably. Yet to this day councils made up of big shot Catholics, Protestants and Jews meet in order to slug out more PC text changes as the Play moves with the times. Then there is the fuss over the actors themselves. You have to have Oberammergau blood in your veins to even think about applying. If you do not, they’ll let you off if you have lived in this corner of Bavaria for 20 years or kindly reduce the period of waiting to 10 if you marry into a village family. This time a few Muslim immigrants from the 90s had qualified and were participating.

And how do you solve a problem like Mary? There used to be a ban on anyone over 30 years of age playing her as they wanted unmarried virgins. Times change. A discrimination lawsuit later and a recent English newspaper revealed that this year the ‘Virgin Mary is mother of two!’ However, actors are paid very little and receive little publicity as they are not meant to overshadow who they portray.

As the seven hours began to wind their way towards their inevitable conclusion, Pilate quite literally washed his hands and things began to look bleak for our hero. King Herrod had just left the stage complete with his entourage that included three live camels, more than 500 villagers had been on stage at the same time arguing over whether to free the murderer Barabbas or Jesus (hindsight is a wonderful thing) and it was becoming increasingly clear that missing this would have been daft.

The conclusion (how refreshing not to worry about giving it away) was strangely tame. After very realistic nails had been hammered into Jesus’ wrists, each one literally accompanied by groans and sounds of fainting from the devout audience, all of a sudden it was just over. The cross was empty, an angel appeared on stage, Mary delivered one of her surprisingly few lines and that was it; we were all saved (from our sins that is!)

It is simply not possible to applaud for more than 10 seconds when your bladder is at bursting point, trust me. To further complicate matters, I would say I was a good 30 years below the average age of the mass than now raced (as much as aching, ageing or aided limbs would allow) towards the portaloos strategically placed right outside the exits. Therefore there was no bowing of the actors, no standing ovation, no flowers on stage, handshakes or speeches. We quietly filed along the dark streets of Oberammergau (this was the first time ever the play finished in the dark, a demand of Herr Stückl to make the ending more dramatic) in search of the correct one of dozens of tour buses waiting to take us home.

At the end of it all it is hard not to love ‘The Play’. The people of Oberammergau do and it shows. Their kids play the ‘Passion’ in the streets and dream of one day playing Jesus, Peter, Mary or even Judas (who has by far the biggest part), their wives in this very orderly, neat corner of Germany put up with unshaven husbands for 365 days, lives are put on hold for the 102 performances of a Play Season to say nothing of rehearsal time. The estimated 50 million dollars in ticket revenue may of course be a sweetener, and the local saying is indeed ‘die Passion zahlt’ (the Passion pays), but so what? Anything different, unique is good and should be embraced in an often all too similar world. I won’t go back and see it again but for one night only, being a sardine and swimming with the current was quite ok by me.

More by this author on his blog.

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