OBERAMMERGAU, Germany — The mornings are quiet here. Terracotta roofs are nestled at the base of the staggering Ammergau Alps. The occasional cyclist passes the painted homes, lederhosen clipped to embroidered shorts. Long beards blow in the wind. Farm vehicles use public roadways. A woman stands in front of the bakery greeting neighbors as she chats with a friend. “Hallo! Morgen!” She seems to know everyone.
As the morning turns to afternoon, the sound of suitcase wheels tapping cobblestone echoes through the town of 5,400. Tour buses have filled the streets. A crowd begins to form, and guides hold flags above a sea of tourists, name tags dangling around their necks. There’s a buzz in the air. “What do you think of Jesus?” one woman asks another as she slices into pork schnitzel at an outdoor cafe. It’s intermission, a three-hour break between acts of the Oberammergau Passion Play. The five-hour production is put on five days a week from May to October, every 10 years.
It’s been this way for nearly 400 years. As the bubonic plague ravaged Bavaria, the village of Oberammergau remained unscathed until Sept. 25, 1633, when a man named Kaspar Schisler brought the plague to the village. Within a month, nearly half of Oberammergau’s population would die.
Desperate, the community pledged to God that if He spared them, they would perform a “Play of the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ” every 10 years. No one died from the plague after the villagers made their vow, and they fulfilled their promise beginning in 1634.
The villagers have gathered to reenact the life, death, and resurrection of Christ every 10 years for nearly four centuries — except for three times: In 1770, when Passion Plays were banned across Bavaria; in 1940, during World War II; and in 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The community had begun rehearsals in January 2020. But after three months of work, as the severity of the pandemic became clear, they shut down the play.
“Everyone hoped that we could continue, and it was a big shock for everyone that we had to stop,” says Eva-Maria Reiser, who plays Mary, mother of Jesus. “For me, the sad thing about it was that we couldn’t get together to hug. We weren’t allowed to come together and cry together.”
Community leaders decided early on that they were merely postponing the play for two years, not canceling it entirely. The village depends on the Passion Play; it brings in nearly half a million people every 10 years, and the money they spend keeps the village economy going through the years between.
“We said it from the first day,” says Andreas Rödl, Oberammergau’s mayor, on the decision to reschedule the play for 2022. “We thought, ‘We must do this.’ For us, for the people here. We must do this because of the history.”
And so, two years later, the show has gone on, with a cast of 1,400 adults and 400 children — but not without changes. Nearly 500 performers chose not to return, citing life changes — new schools, new jobs, new babies. A seamstress for the Passion Play described the many alterations that had to be done because the children had grown so much.
For Reiser, and for most Oberammergau residents, the Passion Play is a family affair, dating back centuries. She was 5 for her first performance. Her brother was in the ensemble, her father in the choir. This year, her cousin is Caiaphas and another cousin is John.
“My grandmom was very excited,” Reiser remembers. “We had no Mary in the family before, so she was very excited. But she died, unfortunately, in 2020. Her mother played [Mary Magdalene] in 1922, so 100 years later, I play Mary. "
In other villages, you might play sports or talk about soccer, says Reiser. “Here, it’s playing theater. When it’s not a Passion Play year, you’re still talking about the Passion Play.” Who will be cast as Jesus? Who will be Judas?
For those five months, their worlds revolve around the production.
“It’s a good time to find a relationship,” says Rödl, who met his wife while performing in 2010, and whose parents met while performing in 1980.
Until 30 years ago, only certain people were allowed to take part. Women had to be unmarried or under the age of 35, and villagers had to be Protestant or Catholic to perform.
“Here, it takes longer to change traditions,” says Monika Lang, who is one of four women who fought for a decade to have the rules changed.
Three decades later, Lang says women are still thanking her for her efforts. “They waited years. And they say it’s such a wonderful feeling of being part of this community, which is the main thing that everybody has out there in the theater. Being part of a big thing, of a community, of something we produce together.”
But that doesn’t mean just anyone can perform: To participate, you must either have been born in the village, been wed to a local for at least 10 years, or have lived in Oberammergau for 20 years. Those who meet the requirements and want to perform agree to not cut their hair after Ash Wednesday, one year before the start of the production.
“It’s posted all over Oberammergau, ‘Let your hair grow!’,” Lang says. “Some beards are wild.”
Frederik Mayet, 41, one of two men who play Jesus, arrives with his sons in tow. It’s his day off, but he wants his sons to experience the performance. His family has been in Oberammergau since 1890 and hasn’t missed a production since. Mayet is the first in his family to serve in a major role, and it’s a big deal.
He was 20 when he was picked to play John the Apostle. That’s when he began to take the Passion Play seriously.
“It really changed my life,” says Mayet, wearing a brown robe, his long hair brushing his shoulders. “It was really important to me, being in the Passion Play, in such an important role.”
This is his second production in the role of Jesus. He imagines he will be too old to play Jesus a third time, in 2030. Oberammergau residents dream in decades: He would love to play Judas, but maybe in 10 years, he’ll be Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate.
His son Vinzent visits him in his dressing room, crunching on cheese curls and watching as his dad studies his lines. Vinzent, who performs as a young server during the Last Supper scene, dreams of being the “big server” in eight years — the one who serves the bread and the wine.
As the sun begins to drop behind the jagged peaks of the Alps, actors clad in leather armor befitting of King Herod’s soldiers fetch the camels from a nearby farmer for the short walk to the theater. The camels are on loan from a farm in the neighboring town of Murnau, residing with the farmer for the duration of the Passion Play. They have a routine, the actors and the camels.
“We always stop here,” says Stephan Doerfler, one of the men. The camel chews contentedly from an overgrown patch of weeds. They take their time: The camels munch and the actors chat with tourists. Doerfler, who has been performing in the play since 1970, reflects on the past four decades.
“For the people on the stage, we’re a team — in unity,” he says. “It’s the first time you see some people in the past 10 years.”
The actors guide the camels up a ramp into the theater. On stage, Jesus has been accused of being a fraud, his fate sealed.
Rochus Rückel, 25 — the other actor who plays Jesus — whistles in his dressing room. He’s preparing for the climax of the play: Soon, he will be hung from the cross. His wardrobe manager covers him in fake blood and a cloud of powdered clay to make sure it stays. Rückel takes one last look in the mirror before resting the crown of thorns into his thick dark curls.
“The whole village, the whole world is looking at you,” Rückel says. “It’s a huge honor.”
Down the hall, Kristina Schulte-Davis fusses over the tenors before they depart for the stage. She manages their wardrobe and ensures the tenors “look good and feel good about themselves” before they face the audience. In the mornings, she’s a grade-school teacher. Her students tell her she looks tired.
“Of course I look tired,” she tells them.
“You still enjoy going there?” they ask.
“Every day. I love it,” she says.
Schulte-Davis didn’t grow up with the Passion Play, but she made sure her sons, Sebastian and Lukas, did. Their first performance was 12 years ago. Sebastian insisted on being the first one to the performances. For the next four years, the boys would reenact scenes daily when they got home from school. With a herd of 50 toy donkeys, they came home and played, the play’s soundtrack on repeat in the background.
“When we were in the car, at home, went to bed. Nonstop,” Schulte-Davis says.
Twelve years later, it’s still playing. She listens to it on her way to work and again on her way home.
It’s not her only routine. Every night, shortly after Jesus is crucified, she trails behind the choir as they fill the back wings of the stage. She hides in the shadows of the tenors, reveling in their sound. “Sixty seconds,” she says, as tenors sing their final hallelujah. “Sixty seconds of beauty.”
In October, the Passion Play will come to a close. Villagers describe the end of the season as bittersweet. Older actors fear that this play will be their last. So much can change in a decade.
Sitting on a bench outside of the theater, Rödl shudders to think about it. “You see so many people so many, many times. And then it’s gone. . . . It’s hard to find words for this.”
In the evening, the play ends and villagers attend to their “real” jobs. Pontius Pilate runs one of Oberammergau’s thriving hotels. When he’s not performing as Jesus, Mayet handles public relations for the play. One of the temple guards owns a dental practice. Mary, mother of Jesus, is a flight attendant. Regardless, they do what they have to do for the show to go on.
“We grow up with this and for us, it’s so important to do it,” says Reiser. “It’s in our DNA.”