Popular Passion play bad for Bavarian barbers

AFP - [email protected]
Popular Passion play bad for Bavarian barbers

Once every 10 years, the Bavarian village of Oberammergau crucifies Jesus all over again and local hairdressers nearly go out of business.


That's because nearly half the 5,300-strong village lets their hair and beards grow for over a year to better resemble the Jews they will interpret in the Passion play which has been running there for nearly 375 years.

The tradition goes back to 1633 when the plague struck the Alpine village and locals vowed, if they were spared, to put on a play about the crucifixion and reincarnation of Jesus once every 10 years - forever.

"A lot of people, including some 600 children, stop having their hair cut from Ash Wednesday (February 25) 2009 to October 3, 2010" when the play packs up for nine years, says Doris Renner, 51, who runs one of the village's three salons.

"That means a tremendous loss of business and shorter working hours for some employees," she adds.

But "Jesus," for his part, is working overtime.

Frederik Mayet, 30, a marketing student, is both "Jesus" and spokesman for the play.

To take part in the play, "you have to be born in the village, have lived here for 20 years, or be married to someone from the village for over 10 years," he says.

The "Passion" is the "social event of the decade," says director Christian Stückl.

"Some want to take part because it's a tradition. Others for religious reasons. Still others, who aren't at all religious, just don't want to miss out," said the village native who usually runs the Munich Volkstheater.

Villagers give up a lot of time to take part.

They will be playing to packed audiences in a specially made 5,000-seat theatre for five hours a day, five times a week, from May 15 to October 3 - and that does not include rehearsals.

Nearly 1,000 villagers have acting roles - for crowd scenes up to 900 at a time can gather on stage - while others play in the orchestra, sing in the choir, sew costumes, or work backstage.

Donkeys, camels, sheep, goats, and doves will also be on hand.

Political edge to the Passion

The Passion "is very important for tourism and economy" of the village, says Mayor Arno Nunn, a former police officer who has only lived here for 12 years and is therefore excluded from the play.

"In 2000 we earned some €25 million, and we hope for much the same this year," he said, adding that he hopes for half a million spectators despite a slump in reservations because of the economic downturn.

"Ordinary tickets are sold out, but only 75 percent of tickets sold in combination with hotel bookings have gone to date so we're hoping for a pick-up in last minute reservations," Nunn said, pointing to the importance of the foreign market because half of visitors are from Britain or the United States.

Actors are chosen at Easter the year before the play, with names written up on a large board for all to see.

"Of course, sometimes people are disappointed they haven't got the role they wanted," Nunn said.

Town councillors used to choose the actors, but this year director Stückl made all the casting decisions and the town hall, which had a veto right for the top roles, went along with them.

"I was euphoric when it was announced I would be Jesus," said actor Mayet, a Catholic. "Everyone in the village came to clap me on the back to congratulate me. It's a great honour."

But there has always been a political edge to the Passion.

Married people only won the right to take part in 1990 after going to court, while non-Christians, including Muslims, have only been included since 2000.

And big decisions regarding the play are still taken by village referendums.

"In the Middle Ages, such Passion plays often fanned anti-Jewish propaganda and there's been a lot of discussion about anti-Semitism in the play in the wake of the Third Reich," Stückl said.

Last year rabbis from the US Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee came to discuss the production with Stückl and Catholic experts.

"Such exchanges are important and help improve the play" which is spoken in German, says Stückl.

Rabbi Eric Greenberg of the Anti-Defamation League welcomes changes away from "ancient negative stereotypes of Judaism and Jews," but still has concerns about some of the visual images in the play and over how responsibility for crucifying Jesus is shared out between Pontius Pilate and the Jewish High Priests.

As for "Judas," he'll be played this year by a Protestant, Carsten Lück, 40, who normally works on stage construction for television and theatres.

"Of course one feels a little more religious when one takes part in the play because we spend a lot of time reading up on theology and the Bible," he says.

"The worst part is growing the beard. I'll be rid of it as soon as the play is over," he says.

Renner's hairdressing shop plans to open late Sunday on October 3.

"They'll be coming in droves and we'll be working flat out from 10 am to 10 pm for days," she says with relish.


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