OBERAMMERGAU, GERMANY – Mary Magdalene is having a beer. A large delicious draft Weihenstephaner Weissbiere. She’s sitting at the bar in a jolly restaurant, the Zauberstub’n, chatting with Vladimir Zerebni, the resident man for all reasons.
Vladimir, the nimble, mustachioed owner, tends bar, waits on table, and has better hands than your usual barmeister. Throughout the evening he takes time to display his legerdemain by performing very entertaining interludes of magic. He says he “worked as a magician in Las Vegas for 10 years but I wanted to come home and have my own place.”
I had asked him if there were any prominent biblical figures in the joint, and he introduced Mary Magdalene, whose lovely chestnut hair trails well below her shoulders. She wouldn’t be weeping and wailing for doomed Jesus the next morning – her day off – so, “I like to have a night out. But,” she says with a smile, “please don’t take my picture drinking beer.”
Fair enough. Everybody deserves privacy on a night on the town, and this is one of them for Mary Magdalene, a local woodcarver whose straight name is Helga Stuckenberger. A couple of beers, an evening meal with friends listening to recorded country and western music. Presently Helga/Mary will return to an emotional, clamorous Jerusalem, a few blocks down the street. She will be there in an indelible drama of salvation depicted movingly on the stage of the Spielhaus (theater).
Oberammergau’s Jerusalem has been re-created as the Jerusalem of Jesus for nearly four centuries. Mary Magdalenes come and go. Helga gets into her skin and psyche every other day, alternating with Ursula Burkhart.
“When I’m not acting, I’m carving,” she says. “In the 1990 play I was Veronica. I guess I’ll always want to be in it, whatever part they give me. Even a bystander in a crowd.”
Oberammergau, a spotless, charming Bavarian village of 5,300, mostly farmers and woodcarvers, seems a stage set itself. With brightly-painted stone houses, the gaudily rococo, domed church of St. Peter and Paul and a mountainous backdrop, it’s a magnet pulling visitors on a sort of pilgrimage from across the planet. The religious, the curious, the theatrically-minded pour in to witness the “Passion Play” that runs for just five months (164 performances through Oct. 8), but only every 10 years. This is the year again, launching, as you may have heard, a new millennium.
Justly proud of their prized theatrical possession, portraying the last days of Christ’s life on earth, the good burghers throw themselves into the production as though their own last days depended on it. Some 2,200 men, women, and children of the village (only Oberammergauers need apply) are the cast, earnest – well-coached – amateurs, from stars to extras. Plus amateur sheep, goats, horses, chickens, doves, and the Palm Sunday donkey.
This has been a compelling spectacle (with orchestra and chorus) long before anybody ever heard of Cecil B. DeMille and Hollywood “spectaculars” – 1633, to give you the inaugural date. Then the townsfolk fearfully prayed that if spared from the bubonic plague ravaging the land, they would offer this dramatic tribute to God.
Although Oberammergau’s isn’t the world’s only “Passion Play,” it has endured the longest (with a few time-outs for such scene-stealers as a couple of world wars), and had perhaps the best results. After one incursion, prompting the villagers’ vow to take the stage, the Black Death did stay away. No more plague deaths were reported in this tranquil valley that is guarded by snowy ranges and a peak called Kapel, built like Gibraltar. And the show went on. And on. And on.
Almost everybody beyond the cast has some involvement: ushers, ticket-takers, stagehands, and cogs in the local economy, keeping 4,200 daily invaders fed and housed. You can’t stay for more than a night. Check into a hotel or bed-and-breakfast, see the play the following day, and get out of town to make room for the next patrons.
The drive from Munich proceeds across lumpy green hills, meadows illuminated by wildflowers and pastures munched in by cows. From the skiing village of Garmisch Partenkirchen, scene of the 1936 Winter Olympics, the last six miles twist through a chocolate and vanilla landscape: dark peaks decorated by snow.
The B & B operated by Ursula Heber and Karl Behner is roomy and immaculate, the breakfast sumptuous. “You need a good breakfast,” says Ursula. “It’s a very long day at the playhouse.”
But a short walk to get there. A pleasant and amusing stroll populated by such fairy tale characters as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Puss-in-Boots – early Disney? – who peer down from vivid murals on stone-walled, wooden-balconied homes. Kitsch, but nicely done. Relax – the Trapp family never appears.
Even though the play, stretching from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (with an ample luncheon intermission), is a marathon sit, it grips you throughout. It’s all in German, but brisk mountain air, flowing into the barrel-roofed auditorium from the open stage, is a helpful stimulant. Bring scarf and coat, as well as a libretto.
A chorus of 50 voices robustly sets the scenes. Some of them are preceded by brief, stunning Old Testament tableaux (called prefigurations) to allow changes of scenery. In lavish colors, the actors perfectly still, they seem freeze-frames. Among them: Daniel surrounded by four lions and protected by an angel; Moses with the tablets, later at the burning bush; Cain and a flattened Abel; the suffering Job.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on the Palm Sunday donkey, and the familiar, timeless tale begins to unfold. Throngs of common people love him. The council of priests, apprehensive that he may cut in on business, hate him. The occupying Romans are indifferent, although their boss, Pontius Pilate, accedes to the demands by the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, that Jesus has to go – permanently, on a cross.
Costuming is brilliant. Contributing to a dazzling atmosphere are the priests in rich robes and lofty, wide-topped tubular headgear, vain King Herod sporting royal purple, breastplated Roman soldiers. The Last Supper is eaten, Judas hangs himself starkly, and finally Annas and Caiaphas have their way.
Jesus is flogged and crowned with thorns. He struggles and falls beneath the weight of his cross, and is helped by Simon the Cyrenian on the awful way to Golgotha. The sound of nails being hammered is chilling. Then the three crosses of Jesus and his criminal companions in agony are lifted upright by the soldiers. The condemned three are cleverly, realistically attached to the timber. Their ache is genuine, however, if not fatal. Hanging there for more than a half-hour is a tremendous physical strain.
“They have to be in great shape,” says the other Mary Magdalene, Ursula Burkhart, whose family is prominent. One of her brothers, Anton, is Jesus. Another, Stefan, is a Jesus antagonist, the ranting demagogue Caiaphas.
Anton Burkhart and Martin Norz take turns as Jesus but the thieves, Stefan Muller and Thomas Steidle, are crucified every day. Some of the moonlighting thespians in leading parts do get paid. Jesus tops the payroll. Norz, a laborer, and Burkhart, a forester, make $21,000 apiece for the season.
“Those are demanding roles,” says an elder with a fluffy white beard, Karl Fuhrler. He plays Gamaliel, a priest who defends Jesus. “They need the rest days. But I work in my woodcarving shop on the day Karl Hartle is Gamaliel.”
The day that began in the warmth of summer sunlight darkens and cools as the crosses are raised. A scowling sky unleashes rain. Appropriate, almost on cue from producer-director Christian Stuckl. Are these special effects? An Oberammergau theatrical shtick?
“It happened like that, too, when I was here in 1990,” says my friend, Aurelio. “Maybe every 10 years the late afternoon weather accommodates mournfully for the crucifixion scene.”
Soon the resurrected Jesus is momentarily back on stage, and Mary Magdalene will declare, “I know that my savior lives.”
Believer or not, you are stirred.
It costs $3.5 million to put on the show, and $7 million more was spent on renovating and enlarging the theater. A profit is made, plowed back into the production and various civic projects of the village.
Aurelio, wanting something carved by Mary Magdalene Stuckenberger, finds a small, handsome lamb at Fuhrler/Gamaliel’s store. “We’re coming back in 2010,” she says to Fuhrler.
“Will they rewrite the plot?” I ask. She frowns.
Fuhrler says, “Why wait that long? We’re here, and it’s just as beautiful the other nine years.”
May 06 2000 04:37 pm | Germany