Germany's Mega Passion Play Is Back, And Jews Are Watching

By Niels Sorrells
Religion News Service

OBERAMMERGAU, Germany (RNS) With its focus on the last days of Jesus' life, a Passion play should, by its nature, arouse passions. But here, the world's most famous Passion play keeps stirring the wrong kind.

As it has almost every 10 years since 1634, this Bavarian town is putting the final touches on the Oberammergau Passion Play in advance of its opening on May 15, keeping up its end of a divine bargain after residents survived the bubonic plague amidst the Thirty Years War.

And, as has become almost routine in recent decades, plans for the play -- particularly the choice of words in the script -- are causing heartburn among some of the world's Jewish leaders.

"Passion plays, by their very nature, present serious problems," says Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser. "It is possible to have a Passion play without the Jews as villains, but I have never seen one."

Efforts on Oberammergau's part to allow Jewish organizations to review the script have only gone so far, since the Jewish groups complain that they still lack the ability to suggest changes.

The AJC and the Anti-Defamation League, in a joint statement this spring, said they've spearheaded the "decades-long process of removing anti-Jewish elements" from the Oberammergau production for one main reason: "Passion plays have perpetuated anti-Jewish sentiment through caricatures and stereotypes of Jews and selective texts."

But there's another reason: Oberammergau is one of the few remaining Passion plays and, by far, one of the largest. The play, which clocks in at well over four hours, will be staged five times a week through October, in a theater that holds 4,700.

The once-a-decade spectacle is central to the town; nearly half of the town's 5,200 residents participate in one way or another. The show is the town's bread and butter, plumping city coffers with enough funds to build a municipal swimming pool and a ski lift -- amenities other
towns can only dream of.

In the past, all shows have been sellouts. But that is in doubt this year.

The play has long survived on big-spending U.S. and British tourists to buy not only tickets, but package tours of the region. But with consumers cutting back after the recent financial crisis, organizers found themselves in the first time, for decades, with tickets still unsold weeks before the show starts.

Oberammergau Mayor Arno Nunn said prices for the show -- some packages reach up to 800 euros (about $1,065) -- were set years ago, when economies were much stronger. But there's little chance of any last-minute reductions: "We have an image that we have to mind," he said.

About 80 percent of tickets have been sold and the town will now scramble to take unsold packages and resell them as individual show tickets for between 49 and 165 euros ($65 to $215) and hope that enough people will decide at the last minute to buy a ticket, since there won't be another show until 2020.

The production transforms the tiny village into a major tourist destination. Only locals may act in the show, and many male actors shun razors for a year or more to lend their beards a more authentic look. With the enthusiasm, the history and the numbers, Oberammergau is no ordinary Passion play, Rudin said.

"You come pre-prepared (knowing) that this is something significant. Therefore what you see on the stage is significant," said Rudin, who's also a columnist for Religion News Service. "It has a great potential to transmit toxic images."

Director Christian Stueckl and dramatist Otto Huber have made changes since they took over the production in the 1980s, making sure, for example, that Jesus is referred to as a rabbi, and removing some anti-Jewish references from the Gospel of Matthew about a blood curse
against the Jews.

Some, including Rudin, think there's room for still more changes, but others aren't so sure.

James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia University who has written about Oberammergau, says the directors and actors can't make too many more changes without straying too far from the original material. The blood curse -- "His blood be on us and our children" -- comes straight from the Gospel of Matthew.

"It's not a flattering portrayal of the role of the Jews in the death of Jesus," he said. "It's impossible to imagine anything that would be a flattering portrayal given the Gospel narratives."

In essence, "we're dealing with the way that two different religious groups read this material," he added. "I think we're getting pretty close to a bedrock level of difference."

Stueckl, the director, argues that there are major changes in his productions compared to earlier versions.

"It is actually an inter-Jewish story," he said, taking a break from rehearsals. "(Jesus' actions against the Jewish authorities) is like a young Catholic opposing the pope."

With that in mind, he said his first production focused on portraying Jesus as more of a revolutionary. Subsequent productions have aimed for a more nuanced Jesus, and Stueckl said he added more scenes this year because "I wanted to write more about Jesus."

Frederik Mayet, one of the two men playing Jesus, said his motivation was partly based on tradition, but also because of the religious questions it forces him to confront.

"Interacting with Jesus, the character, you learn whole new factors. You have the opportunity, if you haven't studied theory, to really interact with Jesus."