The world’s largest and oldest passion play — first performed nearly 400 years ago and now involving, literally, a cast of thousands — rolls out once every decade in a small German village. If its German promoters are right, Minnesotans are among their most likely American audiences for this über rendition of Jesus’ final days.
Last week, leaders from the German National Tourism Board stopped here to promote the Oberammergau passion play, making Minneapolis one of just four U.S. cities to get the red-carpet treatment ahead of the play’s next incarnation, May to October 2020.
Jesus, or at least the actor portraying him, was on hand for interviews, as was the play’s director.
“We think [Minnesota] is one of the most important places in the United States to visit,” said Ricarda Lindner, the German tourist office’s regional manager for the U.S. and Israel. “It’s an area with a lot of Americans with German heritage. It has a strong religious tradition.”
The Twin Cities also is known for its international travelers and global interests, she said, adding, “We feel it’s a fruitful market.”
The world-famous passion play has some serious fans in Minnesota, ranging from the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, to the Rev. Margie Guelker of St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Fridley, who is coleading two tour groups there next year.
“About 500,000 people are expected to come next year,” said Frederik Mayet, the actor portraying Jesus. “More than two-thirds are from North America. We have a long tradition of North Americans coming.”
Oberammergau, a village in the Bavarian region of southeast Germany, is not exactly a household word in the Twin Cities. As the story goes, residents vowed to host a passion play forever if God would spare them further deaths from the bubonic plague in the 1600s. By 1634, the village staged its first re-enactment of Jesus’ final days, death and resurrection.
Since then, a literal cast of thousands — men, women, children, choirs, orchestra musicians, sheep, horses — takes over the city every day during its six-month run. The play lasts five or six hours, with a dinner break, and features only performers born in the town or who have lived there 20 years.
Preparations begin in earnest about five years before the show and are cranking up now, said director Christian Stückl. The casting alone involves auditions with about 1,500 people, prompting many village men to grow their hair and beards to look the part.
The hardest part?
“Deciding who is Jesus and Mary,” said Stückl. Adding freshness to the script, costumes, stage design and more also can be a challenge, he said.
Over the years, the play came under criticism for portraying Jews as the ruthless killers of Jesus and for instilling anti-Semitism. The script is continually being reworked to remove offensive elements, he said.
The outdoor performances draw Christians across the spectrum. Lachowitzer, for example, led a Catholic group to Oberammergau in 2000 when he was a parish priest. He was so moved that he’s not sure he will go back because “nothing can ever beat it.”
Lachowitzer said the crucifixion was mightily enhanced by a thunderstorm rolling in from the Alps. In the scene in which Jesus’ mother Mary cradles his dead body in her arms, she was drenched by the pouring rain. And when the stone was moved from Jesus’ empty tomb, “a rainbow appeared,” he marveled.
The Rev. Kurt Klaus of Messiah Lutheran Church in Lakeville has been to Oberammergau four times, starting when he was 16. For many German-American families, it’s a pilgrimage not only to see the play but also to follow in the footsteps of their immigrant ancestors who also attended when they were young.
Klaus, who is leading a group there next year, said he particularly appreciated that the villagers were the actors. And some also hold jobs.
“You go to dinner break, and suddenly Judas is serving you dinner,” he laughed. “It’s quite spectacular.”