In 1633, a traveller walked into the travel wonder of Oberammergau unwittingly carrying the plague and causing the death of many of the local population in a short time. Seeking a higher power to secure itself from the Black Death, the citizens swore to God that they would re-enact the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection every ten years for safety from this savage disease that had obliterated other towns and communities. Oberammergau escaped the clutches of this savage disease and the well-known Passion Play began its long run.
Even as religious observance has eased in many places in modern times and medical knowledge dramatically improved, Oberammergau avoids tempting fate and continues to fulfil its pledge of almost four hundred years, completing this stunning production on the years that end in zero. Indeed, apart from a war in 1870 and World War II (where religious plays were banned), the play has been completed every decade with the next due in 2010.
As per tradition, the play is solely conducted by the people of Oberammergau with the population studiously growing their hair and beards from the previous year to have the appearance of biblical times. The stagehands, musicians, technicians and costume makers are also drawn from the local populace. Indeed, it is clear who is in the play by simply wandering around town as the hair styles look like a flashback to the sixties and seventies.
The staging is an epic affair with the play running for five hours with a generous interval for dinner over a season of five months. It is conducted in the superb open-air Passion Theatre (audience is under cover) with a dramatic backdrop of the Bavarian Alps. One notable element of the play are the tableaux vivants that see significant biblical scenes frozen like a photograph with the actors remaining motionless on stage while a description of the setting takes place.
To support the popularity of the play with people travelling from all over the world to view it, nearly every house is converted into some form of accommodation and hotels for miles around are packed for months. I stayed with a family whose father and son were both performers, the father assisted in painting the backdrops while the mother helped sew the outfits. The friendly family only provided accommodation during the play though there was no sense of what must have been relief in getting the privacy of their own house back on the completion of the play’s season. Town life also continues with businesses and schools operating as normal adopting schedules to fit around the play’s afternoon start.
Located in southern Germany only a short distance from Germany’s highest peak, the town is a picture postcard of half-timbered houses with flower boxes bursting in colourful bloom and glittering churches, ornately decorated in gold. Many of the houses are adorned in detailed frescoes called lüftlmalerei, covering both religious and non-religious themes. While the most celebrated example is the Pilatushaus, two stunning secular examples are found in Ettalerstrasse. The familiar Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood stories are told in wonderful detail across the front of two houses as if reading giant comic books.
Several shops highlight the thriving woodcarving industry. Exquisite, detailed hand-carved figurines, bowls, plates and toys sit alongside machine-made commercial offerings meeting every conceivable price point. Woodchips lie on the floor as the owners patiently chip away at their latest creation. If you have a favourite saint or biblical character, it is inconceivable that your desires could not be satisfied among the huge religious collections.
In many ways, Oberammergau is a typical modest and picturesque German village. With its alpine setting and verdant surrounds, it oozes a timeless charm. More importantly, a town made a solemn vow and continues to hold its promise very dearly in eternal gratitude for the saving of their ancestors.
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Passion Play photos courtesy of Passion Play, Oberammergau. Tickets for 2010 are available now.