Suddenly it's quiet as a mouse


Frederik Mayet as Jesus on the cross (Photo: Sebastian Schulte)

Jesus hangs on the cross for a good 20 minutes. These are the most intense minutes of the Passion Play. "There is always a very tense atmosphere in the theatre," describes Jesus actor Rochus Rückel. "Even though everyone knows what is going to happen, the tension is higher than ever in the play." He is so concentrated in this scene that he doesn't even have time to think about how it feels. But "extra" it still is, even after more than half the performances, "to play your own demise naked". There is not much room for manoeuvre, every subtlety counts. "You can't hide or turn away from that," says Rückel. "You're 100 per cent on display. When you're on stage, you can turn around or go back, put your hand in front of your face... You can't do all that on the cross, you're like in a vice." And this in the scene where all eyes are on Jesus. It's quite a pressure, he admits.

The strictest audience, he says, are the other participants, the older Oberammergauers who have already seen five or six Jesus actors and can compare. He found it helpful that many of his friends and also his girlfriend sing in the choir and are also on stage during the crucifixion. There was honest and constructive criticism. How quiet must the dying be? How loud may the "Eloi" calls, the calls for God, be? Director Christian Stückl deliberately refrains from giving stage directions in this scene, Rückel says: "Everyone has to find out for themselves how to die. When Jesus speaks his last words, there is an "indescribable silence" in the auditorium, says Frederik Mayet, the second Jesus actor: "Otherwise you always hear a cough or something, but then it is suddenly quiet as a mouse.

The fact that the entire process takes place visibly on the open stage is a relatively recent achievement: until 1990, the choir sang, the hammer blows could be heard from a distance, while behind the curtain the crosses were being prepared for placement. Only since the Passion Play 2000 has the audience experienced everything from the Stations of the Cross to the taking down of the cross. 

First, the actors of Jesus and the thieves have to carry the three wooden crosses onto the stage. A process that is quite strenuous. "We didn't weigh the crosses," explains Benni Mayr, who plays a thief and, as a trained carpenter, built the crosses. "I guess they weigh between 80 and 100 kg. In any case, you have something to do when you have to drag them across the stage." The almost six-metre-high crosses are made of spruce boards and filled with polystyrene and construction foam; the suspension points were additionally reinforced to ensure the necessary stability. That adds up to quite a bit of weight. Backstage, three people each help the condemned to shoulder their cross, then they have to move it on their own in a feat of strength. "When you're carrying the cross, you immediately notice what kind of physical condition you're in," Rückel says. "I never thought it would be this hard, but sometimes it feels as if someone else is sitting on it. And on another day I think: "But today it feels light!"

Once everyone is in place, it's time for the actual crucifixion. In Oberammergau, the two thieves are nailed to the cross just like Jesus. For contrary to what is often depicted in the visual arts, there is no indication in the Bible that Jesus was treated differently from the two criminals. So all three are laid backwards on their cross, the climbing belt hidden under their apron is hooked onto the safety catch. The performers can place their feet on a tiny step, and place their hands on the "nails" that are hooked into the wood and wrap invisibly around the wrist at the bottom.

The brackets are individually adapted to the height of the performers to make hanging reasonably comfortable. When Benni Mayr was ill, one of the apostles stood in for him: Yannik Schaap, who actually plays James Alphaeus. He accepted right away when director Christian Stückl asked him before the performance if he wanted to be crucified today: "I've always wondered what it's like up there," he says. During the interval, they briefly rehearsed the process. As a trained roofer, he had no problem with the quite dizzy height (his feet are about three metres above the stage floor). The only thing that made it a little difficult: The replacement thieve is a bit smaller than the real one, the brackets fit more badly than well. Yannik Schaap had to stretch quite a bit to get into the right position.

Once the actors are lying on the crosses, the executioners hit the wood with their hammers. "That is a very important moment," Frederik Mayet tells us. "When you hear these hammer blows and the cross is erected, it has such a force. You get a completely different feeling for what's going on: this is a brutal murder." 

Frederik Mayet during technical rehearsals (Photo: Sebastian Schulte)

Rehearsals for the cross setup (Photo: Sebastian Schulte)

The executioners then use ropes to pull the lying cross upright from the front and push it from behind. "At the beginning it was a bit scary," Rückel recalls. "By now you know the moment when the cross slips into the latch at the bottom and you can handle it." At that moment, it jerks as if the cross falls forward. But that can't happen, Benni Mayr assures us. There is a sleeve sunk into the ground that can be folded up out of the hole and into which the cross is pushed before it is erected. Once the cross is in the vertical position, the lock can be tightened so that everything holds. The cross stands stable and is anchored about 60 cm deep in the ground. Rochus Rückel also has "complete confidence" that everything is secure.

Both Rückel and Mayr experience the taking down of the cross as more exciting or rather painful than the setting up. As a thief, Mayr has to "throw himself" onto the shoulders of the Roman, who stands in front of him on the ladder and then carries him down. 

"That is actually the moment that needs the most overcoming," he says. And even if it is a little less adventurous with Jesus, who is lowered from the cross in a sling, Rückel finds this moment the most challenging: "When you are hanging in the sling with your whole weight, it is quite strenuous, your whole body is tense. Sometimes you get welts and bruises in your armpits." In any case, he is always happy when he finally lies on the ground. Ready for resurrection.

Text: Anne Fritsch

Photos: Sebastian Schulte