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Passion and faith in Oberammergau, Germany

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Villages in the Bavarian Alps go to sleep early on summer nights. Silence rolls down from the mountaintops along with an eiderdown blanket of fog. A cowbell chimes. A few lights flicker, then go out.

But not this summer in Oberammergau, about 50 miles southwest of Munich, where the lights are on five nights a week and 2,000 villagers stay up late to fulfill a vow their staunchly Roman Catholic ancestors made almost 400 years ago when the village was threatened by the plague. To stave it off, town elders promised to perform the Passion of Christ every 10 years. The first production, staged in 1634 on a platform atop the town cemetery, proved a success because, thereafter, the Black Death bypassed Oberammergau. Since then the village has broken its pledge only twice: in 1770, when Passion plays were banned in Bavaria, and in 1940 during World War II.

As the tradition persisted and word got out, people came to see the faithful little town honor its vow, including Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86), who built Linderhof castle in a valley near Oberammergau, part of a building spree that helped earn him the soubriquet "Mad Kind Ludwig." He liked the production so much that he gave silver spoons to all the leads except for Judas, who got a tin one.

In 1880 English tour company Thomas Cook added Oberammergau to its brochure, spurring the Passion's popularity among people from English-speaking countries, who still make up about 60% of the audience.

Adolf Hitler enjoyed the Jubilee performance in 1934, more a curse than a blessing. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish groups found the play flagrantly anti-Semitic. They even called for an international boycott in 1970, but the season was a record-breaker, attracting 530,000 spectators.

That's a lot of people for a mountain-locked town not much bigger than Disneyland with a population of 5,300. But the village runs the event like a tightly wound cuckoo clock, selling performance tickets as part of package tours. I booked mine months in advance. It included two nights and meals at the Hotel Wolf, admission to the Oberammergau Museum, a Passion play script (with an English translation of the text) and a front-row seat for the second performance in mid-May.

It was raining hard when I drove into the valley, a finger of green lining the Ammer River, cinched in by two rock-faced mountains, Kofel and Laber, both flanked by ski-lifts and a network of paths. The massive, ice-crusted wall of the high Alps rises to the south, I gather. I never saw it because the weather continued foul and cold enough to call for mittens and ski masks at night.

I can't blame Oberammergau for that, and the clouds occasionally parted to reveal a winsome Bavarian village where lilacs were budding. Cows chewed sweet grass in backyard pastures, and petunias cascaded from the window boxes of wood-shuttered chalets right out of "The Sound of Music."

Visitors — almost exclusively older than 50 and part of tour groups — drank mocha lattes in cafes or bought lederhosen and beer steins in souvenir shops with frescoed facades, a Bavarian art form known as luftmalerei. But many other stores are dedicated to the traditional craft of wood carving, as venerated in Oberammergau as the Passion play, and though commercialization has made a mark, the village hasn't been desecrated by it, a relief because I'd been to Eureka Springs, Ark., with its seven-story tall statue of Christ and Passion play theme park.

Moreover, there were surprises, including a range of ethnic restaurants. And everybody laughed when I said I was staying at the Hotel Wolf, which — woof, woof — has found a niche in non-Passion play years by catering to dog lovers. It has dog showers and training rings as well as rooms for masters and pets. Fortunately, my single under the eaves on the top floor, overlooking the Passion Play Theater, didn't have a whiff of the canine, and meals in the downstairs restaurant were fulsome affairs, albeit served with more goodwill than polish.

Normally, I'd be annoyed if my soup got cold while I waited for a spoon. But that amateurishness reflects the homemade character of the Passion play enterprise and the devotion of the people who support it, including waitresses, tourist office workers, shuttle bus drivers, parking lot attendants, scene shifters and a cast of about 1,500, including 550 children — not to mention the donkey Jesus rides into Jerusalem in the first act and a flock of sheep whose odor carries into the audience.

There are no stars. The 2010 play — revised since 2000 — has about 100 speaking parts, a third of which are considered leads, including Jesus, Mary, Judas, Pilate and the high priest Caiaphas. Two performers are cast in each of these roles to ease the burden of rehearsal and performance, which can be shouldered only by people who have flexible work schedules and supportive families.

Cast members are nonprofessional, though Oberammergau is full of amateur actors, singers and instrumentalists because village schools emphasize music and theater. The only requirement for performers is that they must have lived in Oberammergau at least 20 years, or for 10 years if they settle there by marriage. Non-Catholics are now welcome to participate, and in 1990 a regional court made the village open casting to women who are married or over 35, earning the playful headline "Virgin Mary Is Mother of Two" in a British newspaper.

I'm pretty sure I saw this season's Mary Magdalene riding a bike across the square in front of the Passion Play Theater. A sports shop clerk who sings in the play told me that choir members aren't keen about their costumes this year, especially their silver toques. And whenever I met a man with a beard, I knew I was talking to a Passion play actor, possibly a Moses or Isaiah from one of the Old Testament tableaux vivants staged between scenes from the New Testament.

Most of my stay in Oberammergau was taken up by seeing the play, a 5 1/2-hour marathon with a three-hour break for dinner. When the weather is fine, walkers and cyclists head for the mountains. The village itself offers only a handful of diversions, such as visiting the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a rococo extravaganza built in 1742, surrounded by an atmospheric old cemetery. I searched here for the grave of Kaspar Schisler, who worked abroad but stole into the quarantined town to visit his family, bringing the plague with him. Before the first Passion was staged and the plague abated, almost a hundred villagers — including Schisler — died, a relatively few compared with southern Germany as a whole, where the Black Death killed more than a million people.

The excellent Oberammergau Museum tells the full story of the Passion play tradition with costumes from past performances, a timeline, vintage photos and exhibits about the changing text, including the earliest extant script from 1662. Also proudly displayed is the handiwork of village wood carvers and 18th century luftmalerei masters Franz Seraph Zwink, who painted frescoes of Christ's condemnation on the facade of the nearby Pilatus House, a museum annex.

This season the town added an introductory lecture, offered in the morning on performance days at the 4,720-seat Passion Play Theater, a hangar-like building on the north side of town. The crowd that gathered with me in the lobby was so big it had to be divided in two, with dashing director Christian Stuckl lecturing in German and assistant director Otto Huber leading English speakers inside the partly heated, concrete-floored theater.

The auditorium got a roof in 1900. But to preserve the alpine backdrop, the stage remained open to the elements until this season when a retractable roof was installed, a comfort to performers that greatly increased Passion play debt, now estimated at 27 million euros ($33 million), 10 million of which has been guaranteed by the German Free State of Bavaria. Huber, a retired high school teacher who co-wrote revisions of the script with Stuckl, said receipts from a successful 2010 season could help right village finances. But bookings have been slack, raising concerns that the state will take over the Passion play, an eventuality villagers worry about.

Still, Huber, a bear-like man with the requisite bushy beard, remained cheerful as he took us backstage to see sets, props and costumes, and grew passionate when discussing text changes. The major goals of the revisions, he said, were to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus; the responsibility borne by Roman procurator Pontius Pilate for his condemnation; and the political dilemmas faced by high priest Caiaphas, who did not stop the crucifixion.

But together with other changes instituted by the Stuckl-Huber team, including rescheduling performances and casting younger actors in leading roles, the search for a more historically accurate, nuanced version of the Passion was met with outrage by conservatives. The village was further rocked by the German clerical abuse scandal, part of which unfolded in March at a monastery school in nearby Ettal. On top of all that, a delegation from the New York-based Anti-Defamation League that attended a preview in early May said that, despite revisions, the production "continues to transmit hostile stereotypes of Jews and Judaism."

As I took my seat in the theater, I doubted that many people in the mostly sold-out house knew about Oberammergau's problems. Even if they did, it clearly had not lessened their joy and excitement. They filed in with parkas, blankets, drinks and snacks, then cracked open official texts to follow the action of the play performed in German.

I loved the way it opened with village children running in front of the donkey that carries Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Then the orchestra boomed from the pit as a 50-member choir, garbed in beautiful long white robes, formed a line across the stage and sang the prologue during the showing of the first tableau vivant depicting Adam and Eve cast out of paradise.

Vignettes from the Old Testament and music took up half the production time, followed by scenes from the New Testament dramatizing the final days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It's a mixture of Wagnerian opera, Greek tragedy and church pageant. Way too long, even with a three-hour dinner break. I could have done without the tableaux vivants and a lot of the priestly debating. But the crowd scenes, with toddlers trying hard to stand at attention, were gifts from God, by way of Oberammergau, and nobody could turn away when thunder rolled as Jesus was nailed to the cross.

I, too, was following the English translation of the text and raised my head when I heard Simon Peter's words from the Gospel of St. John: "Lord, whither goest thou?" The question, ever at the heart of Christianity, is now being asked about Oberammergau's 400-year-old Passion play. But this year the lights are on.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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