Moving Pictures


Photographer Birgit Gudjonsdottir at work (photo: Sebastian Schulte)

The sun is shining above the small town of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, a hint of spring fills the air. It is cold inside the Passion Play Theatre. 4 degrees Celsius. A cool breath of wind sweeps across the open stage like always in the winter months. A tent set up in front of the portico on the left side provides clear illumination. There are Frederik Mayet and Peter Stückl, playing the roles of Jesus and the High Priest Annas respectively, surrounded by a pack of people. They wear skiing underwear underneath their costumes. One of the priest’s servants hits Jesus in the face. Again, and again. The actor of the servant has rehearsed this move quite well but his helmet is shining too bright in the light so it has to be sprayed with black wax spray to prevent the reflection. Not that easy in these cold temperatures but it works out. The Roman soldiers´ spears are another challenge. They have to be arranged in an exact way to catch the light. Every detail has to be observed for the perfect picture. If someone blinks or has a bored expression in the background, then it was all for nothing.

Birgit Gudjonsdottir has been in Oberammergau since the beginning of March to take the photographs for the photo book of the 2022 Passion Play, alongside her assistant Johannes Neumann and her lighting technician Niels Maier. The scene involving Jesus and Annas is the last shot for this Tuesday. Before that, the expulsion of the merchants from the temple and Judas´ payment were shot. Gudjonsdottir´s assistant sees the new photographs directly on his screen and checks the lighting and details. Every picture was precisely planned beforehand: Which actors are to be included? What kind of props and animals are needed? Is the hair supposed to look “greasy” or “stringy”? The bodies supposed to be covered in “dirt” and “sweat”? Detailed room sketches of the individual photographs hang on boards next to the tent. These 3D visualisations were created by Gudjonsdottir and Lorenz Stöger, Stefan Hageneier´s assistant, using an architecture programme. This way they were able to directly place the characters in the stage scenery and to compose the pictures. “Apparently they always had very long working times at the shootings of the last Passion Plays”, Birgit Gudjonsdottir tells me in the cantina after the shooting. “This is what I wanted to prevent. I wanted to be sufficiently prepared so that our working time would not exceed ten hours a day. We do add some more movement here and there but in general this method allows us to know the starting point, which saves us a lot of time”.

The fact that Gudjonsdottir takes the photographs for the photo book is somewhat of a fulfilment of a passion she almost forgot she had. “Back in school, I was always fascinated by the stories my religion teacher told us”, she tells me. “I used to draw these stories into my notebook”. One day, her teacher told her to stop drawing so much and start listening, as this was not a drawing class. “I was so angry, I disenrolled from religion class”, she remembers. “Even back then I wanted to tell these stories in pictures. Then, when I came to Oberammergau I thought: Well, this is it, this is exactly what I´ve been wanting to do ever since I was a child”. Gudjonsdottir was born in Iceland, to an Icelandic father and an Austrian mother. She grew up alternately in Iceland, Austria and Germany. In 1990, she read somewhere that a young stage director was responsible for the Passion Play in Oberammergau and that half the village was involved. She was fascinated and thought she wanted to take a look at that sometime.

Christian Stückl at the photo book shooting (photo: Sebastian Schulte)

Then in 2019 she received a call by stage designer Stefan Hageneier. A movie agent had recommended the Icelandic photographer, that has been active as a cinematographer and pictorial designer in the film industry since 1991. “I don’t know exactly whose idea it was to hire someone from the film industry instead of a photographer”, said Gudjonsdottir, “But we are just used to think more about the story as whole instead of just catching one single moment. What is the subtext? What is it all about? How can we combine pictures in order to get across the plot?” She came to Oberammergau for a few days to get to know the team – and immediately knew that she wanted to take the job.

Stefan Hageneier, Christian Stückl and Birgit Gudjonsdottir on stage of the Passion Play Theatre (photo: Sebastian Schulte)

 “I got goosebumps and teary eyes when I came to the preparations and watched the first rehearsal on stage in January two years ago”, she remembers. “I thought this power of having so many people on stage was amazing. Where else do you get that? And they were all so enthusiastic, I find it very remarkable”. She read the text with play director Christian Stückl and he explained her which scenes he wanted to be pictured. Gudjonsdottir looked at a lot of paintings surrounding the topic, created a personal setting out of it and began to break away more and more from these drafts. Other than most theatre photographers, she does not take photographs of the played-out scenes but creates individual snapshots. “My goal is to bring more movement into these pictures compared to previous photo books”, said Gudjonsdottir. “I want you to feel like you are a part of the story, right up on stage. This is another difference to the paintings”. The photographs ought to be less static; the actors and costumes are to be caught within their movement.

Due to the corona pandemic, the shootings had to be halted on their fifth day in 2020. The shooting plan from back then now serves as a basis but she has since changed a lot and has improved existing compositions that she was not thoroughly satisfied with. “You have a different approach on the second time”, she said. “I feel like now I can make even more of it”. She takes photographs of the smaller scenes during the week and of the big scenes during the weekend. For the latter she may take up to 200 or 300 pictures per take. The face punch in the Jesus and Annas scene shot today also took a lot of trials as it just works out in this one perfect moment. Her digital camera takes 12 pictures per second. The best picture must then be chosen. Every night, Gudjonsdottir sits in front of her screen till 9 or 10 pm, making a preselection. There is only a period of about ten days between the end of the shooting and the print of the book. The photographer needs at least three sorting procedures until she has reduced it to five pictures per take. These will then be submitted to Christian Stückl for the final decision. The photo book will then be published at the premiere in May.

Last finish for Jesus actor Rochus Rückel before the photo shoot (photo: Sebastian Schulte)

Text: Anne Fritsch

Photos: Sebastian Schulte