At Oberammergau, An Ancient Vow Survives Modern Protest, and the Show Goes on

updated 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

His ancestors include a Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, St. John the Apostle and no less than three Judases—a lineage possible only in Oberammergau, the mountain-ringed Bavarian hamlet that has staged its world-renowned Passion Play nearly every 10 years since 1634. So for dashing Rudi Zwink, 21, a dental student, playing Christ is in his blood.

"I am a believer in the Catholic faith," avows Zwink, son of Oberammergau's burgomaster, "and I am proud to be chosen." From that kind of piety and pride, rendered into breathtaking spectacle, have come centuries of tourist trade that sustains the hamlet of 4,800. From May through September upwards of a half-million pilgrims, among them some 90,000 Americans, will spend more than $13 million there. The 4,744-seat Passionsspielehaus was sold out 18 months ago for the five and a half hours of oratorio (a 65-piece orchestra accompanies a 48-voice chorus), drama and tableaux vivants. In these the actors stand stock-still for a full minute in scenes that bring to mind Oberammergau's other major tourist industry, religious woodcarving. The roles are so grueling that there are two complete casts. Zwink, who alternates the lead in the five weekly performances with coppersmith Gregor Breitsamter, 49, complains about the crucifixion scene: "A mountain-climbing belt under my loincloth gives me some support, but it cuts in terribly. Worse, though, is the loss of circulation in my arms."

The honor is presumably worth the pain. The 36 alternating principals (of a total cast and crew of 1,400) were cast last June by secret ballot of the Passion Play committee. Though every resident is guaranteed an appearance at least once in a lifetime (only virgins may play Mary), roles are avidly contested. For safety's sake, Zwink has given up his beloved tennis and soccer during the pageant, but he'll earn $10,000 and a summer's glory. "Some people ask for my autograph, others my blessing," he admits, and adds incredulously, "An Englishman kissed my hand." (In 1970 an umbrella-wielding Englishwoman rapped the noggin of the actor who played Judas.)

The 1980 Christ tools around town in a Renault, enjoys a stein of Bavarian, and fends off groupies while admitting, "Like any other young man my age, I have a girlfriend." A professional acting career intrigues him, but he aims first to finish his dental studies: "I'll probably return home to keep up the Passion Play tradition, which goes back in my family for generations."

The Zwinks claim their forebears were present when the pageant was originated. In 1633 Oberammergau alone among its Alpine neighbors was free of the Black Plague until, according to legend, a homesick traveler sneaked past the guards at the town gates and spread contagion. The elders, mourning 84 dead, swore to mount a Passion Play each decade in perpetuity if the plague would stop. Mercifully there were no more deaths.

But in the late 1960s yet another tribulation beset Oberammergau: charges that the play's vintage script and melodramatic performances were anti-Semitic. In 1970 nearly 70,000 ticket holders canceled out in protest.

"We have considerably cut those sections of the text which were considered anti-Semitic," says burgomaster Ernst Zwink, 59, head of the Passion Play committee. But he's leery of too much reform. "We can't rewrite history." Nonetheless, at the 1980 premiere, a Zwink cousin stepped from the chorus to recite a prologue never heard in three centuries at Oberammergau:

Greetings also to you, brothers and
sisters of the people
Who brought forth the Redeemer.
Let no one try to find blame in others.
Let each of us recognize
His own guilt in these events...

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