Of the 5,500 inhabitants of this alpine town, 1,400 of them – babies or octogenarians – take part in a unique show in homage to Christ.
It all started during the Thirty Years’ War: the inhabitants promise to play the “Passion Game” every ten years, which tells the last hours of Jesus, to banish the deadly plague.
After the first performance in 1634 of the martyrdom, death and resurrection of Christ, the plague disappeared, the story goes.
Since then, their descendants have scrupulously renewed this vow, defying the prohibitions of the Age of Enlightenment, wars or epidemics such as the recent Covid pandemic which postponed the show for two years.
Why has the tradition continued over the centuries? “I think we are a bit stubborn,” jokes Frédéric Mayet, 42, who is playing Jesus for the second time.
“But above all we identify very strongly” with the Passion Game, adds this man with blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair.
“I remember we were talking about it in kindergarten. Without really knowing what it was about, of course I wanted to participate!”, Says Cengiz Görür, a 22-year-old young man of Turkish origin who plays Judas.
– From 3 months to 85 years old
In Oberammergau, Jesus and his disciples are superstars: they can be seen on the painted facades of old houses, in the shops storing carved wooden statues, another tradition of this postcard village.
In the street too, where we currently come across, among the tourists, a much higher than average number of bearded men with long hair.
And on the open-air stage of the theatre, where the new edition of the Passion Play is held from mid-May until October 2.
The only conditions for participating in the 5-hour show in total, as an actor, chorister or backstage: to be born in Oberammergau or to have lived there for at least 20 years.
“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationships between all the participants, young and old, it’s a beautiful community, a kind of family of Passion”, testifies Walter Lang, a “veteran” of 83 years, regretting that his wife, who died in February, is missing.
Generations follow one another, families are created there. “My parents met during a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife there”, testifies Andreas Rödl, mayor of the village and chorister.
– “Hidden talent” –
Fates are also at stake here. Like that of Cengiz Görür, spotted in 2016 by director Christian Stückl, director of the popular theater in Munich.
“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I would probably have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” laughs the young man who is going to start studying drama in Munich this fall. “I discovered my hidden talent,” he rejoices.
Christian Stückl “has also done a lot for the fame of the show, which he has revolutionized” for 40 years, judge Barbara Schuster, 35, human resources manager, and on stage Marie Madeleine.
“Before, going to the Passion Play was like going to mass. Today, it’s a real theatrical spectacle,” she says.
Above all, he expurgated in the 1980s of any anti-Semitic connotation the text which accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. “Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” she recalls.
– Burning news –
Jesus says “fear rages over Israel, cries of war fill the country, poverty and disease take hold of you (…)”, declaims Frédérik Mayet.
“For us, it’s the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, and the growing disparities between poor and rich,” he adds.
For fear that the war would spread to Europe, operators in the United States, the main market for Passion Play, canceled some 20,000 reservations shortly after its outbreak in late February, said the mayor.
Revenues from the show, which average between 25 and 30 million euros, could suffer.
“For me, the strongest moment takes place at the end of the last performance in October, when the hallelujah is sung” after the resurrection of Jesus, confides Walter Lang, who appears this year among the poor, in the people.
“Because we don’t know if next time we’ll be here again,” he said, his eyes filling with tears.