As theologians debate the meaning of Jesus Christ’s life and death, and as historians burrow for the elusive facts regarding events now two millennia distant, the Passion of Christ remains a canvas upon which people around the world paint their own pictures. As a boy in Catholic school, I walked the Stations of the Cross with my classmates; a couple decades later, I winced at Mel Gibson’s gory and literal Passion. Now, I find myself holding Passion Play 2010: Oberammergau, the official coffee-table souvenir of one of the world’s most elaborate and longest-running dramatizations of that story.
Since 1634, the German town of Oberammergau (population: 5,204) has staged a production of the Passion story so elaborate it’s held only once ever ten years—the residents promised God that if He spared them from the bubonic plague, they’d make it worth His while. The production runs no fewer than seven hours (there’s a break for a three-hour intermission) and is performed repeatedly over the course of several months; the 2010 production, in which literally half the town’s residents have roles, will conclude its run next month. Over half a million people will attend this year’s performances.
Unless you’ve already seen this decade’s production, or have your ticket booked, Prestel’s spacioius volume is the closest you’re apt to get to the big show. The book, “edited by the community of Oberammergau,” walks you through the story, presenting a series of striking photographs of the episodes portrayed and the Old-Testament tableaus that punctuate the action. (In keeping with the production’s communal emphasis, photographer Brigitte Maria Mayer is credited only in small print, on the copyright page.)
Paging through the book is an absorbing and impressive experience, but what you won’t find is a lot of information on the production itself. There’s a brief introduction by director Christian Stückl and a five-page illustrated timeline of the production’s history, but the emphasis is squarely on the experience rather than on the context.
Those interested in the thorny politics and daunting logistics of the production will have to turn to one of the several informative histories that have been written about the show. This volume will be most rewarding for those looking to get up close and personal with the current production, and for those looking simply to reflect on the life and afterlife of the Son of Man.