Passion parade

Every ten years, half a million visitors flock to a tiny Bavarian village to watch a medieval myster

Until 8 October, a pretty village in the Bavarian Alps plays host to an extraordinary theatrical event. Every ten years since the 17th century, local villagers have enacted the climax of the Gospels, Christ's Suffering, Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is a breathtaking, six-hour blend of opera, devout ritual and lavish Hollywood epic. You would never guess that this cast of thousands are all amateurs. Yet the Oberammergau Passion play inspires not only intense adoration, but fierce criticism, too.

Oberammergau's Passion play was prompted by the plague of 1633, which ravaged Bavaria after the Thirty Years War. More than a tenth of the population had already died when the survivors made a solemn vow: if God spared them, they would perform the Passion every decade for ever more. Thereafter no one perished, or so the story goes. More than four centuries later, that pledge has become an international spectacle, transforming an obscure outpost into a worldwide point of cultural and religious pilgrimage. First staged in a graveyard, it is now performed on an open-air stage against a beautiful Alpine backdrop. More like a football stadium than a theatre, this huge, raked hall could house Oberammergau's entire population yet, when I went, every seat was taken and there were long queues for returns.

This year, more than 2,000 locals, almost half the village, will give 100-plus performances to half a million visitors. Qualifications for participants are severe. If you weren't born here, you must have lived here for 20 years, or ten if you marry a lifelong resident. Until 1990, rules for women were even more rigid. Actresses had to be unmarried and under 35. In 1880, an actress who had had an affair was banned for life. In 1950, a prospective Virgin Mary was relegated to playing Mary Magdalene after she was spied dancing with American soldiers. In 1990, when a married mother was cast as Mary, some spectators complained.

Sectarianism has also been rife. A fifth of the villagers are Protestant, yet only recently were they allowed speaking roles. This year, for the first time, several Muslims also appear, including the Turkish trainer of the football team, who plays a Roman soldier. But the big sectarian thorn has always been Judaism.

This revenge drama evolved amid the vicious religious strife of the early 1600s, yet its roots lie in more Rabelaisian medieval mystery plays. Earlier versions featured devils devouring Judas's intestines (played by a string of sausages), but the Catholic Church frowned on such comic antics and, in 1770, all Bavarian Passion plays were banned. Out of hundreds, only Oberammergau's prevailed. In this sanitised, Church-sanctioned revival, Jews became the bogeymen.

Nineteenth-century Romanticism transformed Oberammergau into a biblical Shangri-La, especially for people in Britain, where New Testament plays, so popular in the Middle Ages, were now deemed blasphemous. An English cardinal said there were two ways back to Jesus for Christians who had lost their faith: Jerusalem or Oberammergau; the Prince of Wales paid a visit; and Thomas Cook brought his own Baptist package tour.

During the Third Reich, this nostalgic work of folk art was easy prey. The Nazis cut ticket prices; Hitler attended two productions and praised its vivid depiction of "the muck and mire of Jewry". For half a century since, Oberammergau has tried to shake off the Fuhrer's unwelcome patronage, but for many informed, influential outsiders, its reforms seem too little, too late. In 1966, Gunter Grass and Arthur Miller, among others, demanded a boycott. In 1970, Munich's own archbishop called for revision, and the Church withheld its official blessing. For the first time in a century, there were empty seats. In 1984, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee called the play "grotesque".

Faced with such stiff condemnation, the villagers could have staged their play in increasing isolation. But despite its mythic status as the secret custom of a hidden hinterland, Oberammergau's play has always been its window on the outside world. It has lasted so long because it has always adapted to survive. It is a barometer, reflecting Germany's shifting social climate. And since the war, a generational struggle for its style and substance has been played out in the wings.

In 1990, a new generation won this tug of war between reformers and traditionalists. Their bold, liberal remake rescued a reverent dramatic relic from atrophy and decay. The principal actors now make a pilgrimage to Israel, and, in a radical change to the dramaturgy, Jesus is now unmistakably Jewish. He prays in Hebrew. He wears a prayer shawl. His Last Supper is a Passover meal, with a menorah on the table. At his trial, there are Jewish dissenters in the court and in the crowd. Conversely, the rabbis could be any rigid religious hierarchy, even the Vatican. "Jesus is not a man from Rome," says the dynamic young director, Christian Stuckl, who acted in the play as a child, and whose family tree stretches back via virtuoso performances by his father and grandfather to a victim of the plague. "From the first to the last day, he is a Jew."

Christ's relationship with Judas has become a subtle but potent power struggle. Once Judas was the sole archetypal Jew amid a dozen Gentile apostles. Now he is a moral but frustrated fundamentalist militant whose betrayal acquires a dreadful momentum of its own. "Judas is his best friend," says Anton Burkhart, a forester who portrays an explosive, hypnotic Jesus. "He wants to fight for his country." This Judas is a victim, too.

In 1990, Stuckl was tied to the play's older traditions, but now his mesmeric staging has won him the freedom to make significant changes. For the first time in a generation, there are new stage designs and costumes, and a new script, which is nearer to the humanity of Matthew's Gospel than to the abstractions of John. His fellow moderniser is Otto Huber, who first appeared in the play when he was three. Four of his ancestors appeared in the play of 1680. Two perished in the plague. Huber flew to the US to meet Jewish critics, and removed Matthew's fateful line, "His blood be upon us, and upon our children", in which the Jews accept eternal culpability for killing Christ. Huber's children appear in this play, too.

"Former Passion plays, especially those from the medieval time, treated the conflict of Jews and Christians in a very dangerous way," says Huber, speaking in his dressing room, fresh from his performance as the play's narrator. "The idea that the Jews are morally and intellectually inferior to Christians used to be very clear in the play, but that's not the message that we will give to our audience." Huber's liberalism got him thrown out of the 1970 production. In 1982, he staged his own Passion play. In 1990, he returned, bringing shades of grey to a black-and-white morality tale, playing a significant part in shifting its focus from theology to theatre, and tempering its triumphalist Christianity by presenting it as a story of internal Jewish schism.

"Huber and Stuckl did a tremendous job of meeting virtually all the objections of the Jewish groups," says James Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and the author of a book about the play. "They did a very responsible job of trying to address these sensitivities." But some Jewish observers still harbour sincere doubts. In 1999, Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith claimed that, in its current form, the play would "invite, if not incite, anti-Semitism".

"Leon was very upset," says Shapiro. "He was actually shaking during the production." Yet maybe the play's remaining problems are intrinsic to the Gospels. Nearly 40 years after the Vatican's seminal "Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions", the play has finally caught up. "This play accords with official Church position," Shapiro told his fellow Jewish critics. "If you have a problem with it, the right address to take complaints is the Vatican."

"They notice there have been many changes, but for the [most] conservative of them, most of all for those who were in the Holocaust, the changes are not enough," says the Lutheran pastor Carsten Haublein, who appears in the play, of the continual debate with Jewish observers. "I'm happy that there is discussion about this, but for me, there is also a border. There is a line where it should stop. You can come to a point where it's not recognisable as a Christian play."

Ironically, these controversies have forced the village to consider its past in far more detail than many of its neighbours. A Hebrew music festival is planned; visiting speakers have included a concentration camp survivor. As Huber says: "This is a dialogue that cannot be finished." There are apt yet awkward parallels between Matthew's blood curse and the German burden of the Final Solution. Germans have had to ask themselves questions about collective guilt that they once asked, wrongly, of the Jews. "When there was this kind of sin," says Huber, "there is a responsibility to get rid of it."

In the play, old associations persist. When this mob bellows, the English ear hears the breaking glass of Kristallnacht. Yet most scenes recall nobler chapters in German history. When this muscular, angry Christ throws the merchants out of the Temple, he could be a Martin Luther, nailing theses to a church door.

"It's not only acting," explains Burkhart, "it's also a religious experience." But it is not an act of worship. "It's not a church, it's a theatre, and I am not a priest," he says. "You can play the human side of Jesus. You can't play the Son of God." "It's not real," agrees Haublein, of a play that replicates Holy Communion, but does not duplicate it. "It's not a play of the Church. It's a play of the inhabitants." Yet like a religious rite, it has become an integer for their lives. The death rate drops before the play, and rises thereafter. Huber's mother sang her father a Passion song on his deathbed. Oberammergau is a place where religious theatre is uniquely important. The identity of this village has fused with the identity of its play.

And, despite enduring differences with Judaism, for Christians, the play has become a powerful ecumenical force. "We have common ground in the Passion play," says Haublein. "There are Catholic and Protestant people together, playing the same play, on the same basis." This year, for the first time, he blessed the play alongside his Catholic counterpart. Most actors are still Catholic, but most spectators are Protestant. And despite the language barrier, more than half are from English- speaking nations.

"We've always worked to bring the different denominations together," says Michael Counsell, a Church of England vicar who has taken bilingual services with Lutherans throughout the summer. "I have found English visitors who still carry enough baggage from the Second World War to find that actually shaking hands with a German and saying the Lord's Prayer together is a deeply moving and reconciling experience." Counsell first came to Oberammergau shortly after his son was killed by a drunk driver. "It was the last thing I wanted to do," he says, "but our other two children persuaded us to come." He subsequently met the driver who killed his son, and found some sort of forgiveness and reconciliation. "I don't think I could have managed it without the Passion play," he says. "It showed me the lengths to which God was prepared to go to reconcile, to forgive me, and that God, too, had lost a son, and so that God understood what I was going through."

For Christians such as Counsell, this transcendental play is a mystical, emotional adventure, where the biblical narrative rises up from the flat pages of a dusty book to become vivid flesh and blood. Yet, even from a secular perspective, it is still an astonishing metaphysical phenomenon, in which a story so central to our culture lives and breathes anew. Here, art lovers can see their favourite medieval meister-werks come alive, and movie buffs can marvel at a King Of Kings 300 years older than Cecil B De Mille. But this isn't just a theatrical Jurassic Park, a Jacobean play preserved in aspic. Constantly evolving to mirror the spirit of each passing age, it is also a time machine back to a lost era when theatre retained its ancient power to transport you into another world.

Lufthansa flies daily to Munich from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester. Call 0845 773 7747. For further information about Oberammergau, call the German National Tourist Office on 020 7317 0908, or the Oberammergau Tourist Office direct on 00 49 88 22 92 310

Oberammergau: the troubling story of the world's most famous passion play by James Shapiro is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). Every Pilgrim's Guide to Oberammergau by Michael Counsell is published by Canterbury Press (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street