OBERAMMERGAU, Germany — “I shout: ‘Jesus is innocent! Set him free!'” Roswitha Stückl exclaimed in a loud voice, while grinning at her husband, Peter, who plays the Annas, the high priest.
White-haired Peter Stückl chuckled as he recounted his many years of acting in the world-famed Passion Play and the villainous role he now performs; his father once played the same role. But Roswitha Stückl portrays a poor woman, part of the crowd on stage who support Jesus against the religious and political authorities who want to do away with him.
“We don’t fight at home, only on stage,” Roswitha Stückl told Catholic News Service with a mischievous smile. The couple recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary as proof of that.
Their son, Christian, is the most recent director of the Passion Play; he is heading the production for a fourth time.
“I started performing in the Passion Play from the age of 7 in 1950,” Peter Stückl explained. “It’s important when you are a child growing up in this village and everything turns around the play.” Although this year he portrays Annas, he also has been the priest Nathanael; Judas, who betrays Jesus; the high priest Caiaphas; and he once was the youngest bass in the choir.
“It’s very important to take part. Everyone wants to take part. It encompasses your whole life,” he told CNS.
The play’s deputy director in 2022, Abdullah Kenan Karaca, also plays Nicodemus, who chooses to follow Jesus, after having a long conversation about how to truly know God.
“As a kid, I lived next to the church and was fascinated by the pictures and everything there, so I had to be in the play,” said Karaca, the son of Turkish immigrants. He grew up in Oberammergau, a predominantly Catholic village where many house facades depict biblical scenes or Mary. But this village, too, is becoming reflective of Germany’s more diverse society. The play this year includes a leading Muslim actor for the first time.
“Being on stage then was something I could never forget. We were told never to look at the audience, but I did. Maybe it was the first sign, that I would later become a director or work in the theater,” he said with a laugh.
“Some of Oberammergau’s townspeople participate in the play because of their faith, the vow or are fascinated by the theater’s big production. But everyone is trying to do their best and do it from their heart. It’s a really beautiful story that the Passion of Jesus can bring a lot of people together,” Karaca said.
When plague hit Oberammergau in the 1630s, the town prayed to stop the spread of the disease. Residents then vowed to God to perform a Passion Play –– something that was common at the time — every 10 years as an act of penitence, worship and thanksgiving.
Karaca said he has been resident director at the Munich People’s Theater since 2015.
“The Passion Play is different than normal theater. It’s not done for applause. We have a vow. Also, it is not manageable to bring all the actors — this year numbering 1,800, including children — on stage. But we can hear the applause,” he said.
“People participate in the play honestly, respectfully, faithfully. This is really important,” Karaca told CNS. “We are aware of what we are doing. The live animals on stage — a donkey, two horses, two camels, and a number of sheep and goats — can be challenging, but still the basis is there, setting the tone of respect.”
Frederik Mayet, one of two actors portraying Jesus, comes from a family with a long history of participating in the Passion Play, starting in 1890. His children, ages 3 and 8, are with him on stage.
“The Passion Play is in the DNA of Oberammergau. Today, you can’t think of the village without the play, everyone is so involved. It’s in our genes to do the play,” Mayet told CNS. “It’s the most important social event that we have, and everyone is so proud to have this centuries-old tradition in our city.”
Performers must be born in Oberammergau or have lived in the village for 20 years, although children are excluded from this rule.
However, Mayet could only first take part in the play at the age of 20. Although he was born in Oberammergau and grew up there, his family moved to Munich for his father’s studies.
Mayet, who also works professionally in theater in Munich and Oberammergau, first performed as John the disciple. Now it’s his second time taking on the role of Jesus, and to him “it really means a lot.”
“You go to church, read the Gospels, but being on stage and trying to bring Jesus alive is something completely different, because you have to think yourself into the situation, into the meaning of his words and what he wanted from us,” Mayet said.
“I feel it’s a big gift that I have the opportunity to be a part of this play. It’s very special, and it definitely enriches my life.”