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What is the Oberammergau Passion Play?

Kieran Meeke / 28 June 2017 ( 15 April 2019 )

In 2020, the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau will host the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play. But what is it? Find out everything you need to know here.

Man carrying the cross in Oberammergau Passion Play
The decenniel Oberammergau Passion Play has attracted thousands of viewers since it was first undertaken in 1634, when the residents of the small Bavarian village made a promise to God that if their village was spared from the bubonic plague, they would preform it every 10 years.

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The village of Oberammergau

The small village of Oberammagau sprawls along the pretty Ammer River valley in the alpine region of Upper Bavaria, 90 minutes southwest of Munich. 

The Ammergau mountains look down on a settlement that has grown steadily since its inhabitants first performed the now-world-renowned Oberammergau Passion Play in 1634.

In summer, the houses bloom with a multitude of colourful window boxes, while the valley offers scenic hikes and the mountains challenge climbers.

Visitors also come to see sights such as nearby fairy-tale Linderhof castle, one of several in the region built for King Ludwig II but the only one completed in his lifetime. Believe it or not, although modelled after the Palace of Versailles, this was designed as a hunting lodge.

A new attraction is the Alpine Coaster toboggan run at the Kolbensattel. This 1.6-mile run down a steel track – among the world’s longest – takes in spectacular alpine views at a speed of up to 25mph. The 1,300-foot drop feels much further and faster.

In winter, snow transforms the meadows around the Ammer into cross-country trails, while cable cars and ski lifts carry visitors in search of ski runs on the slopes of the Ammergau and into the Karwendel mountains beyond.

Bavaria is noted for its woodcarvers and the main street of Oberammagau is lined with shops dedicated to the craft. 

Many of the carvings depict biblical figures such as angels, Madonnas and nativity scenes, in harmony with the religious theme of the play. Others are more contemporary but all display a skill that reflects 500 years of tradition. You can also buy cuckoo clocks, of course.

You can see some of the finest examples of the woodcarver’s art in the decor inside the local churches. 

Those who wish to learn more can also join a week-long course or, from May to October, watch a craftsman at work in the town’s Pilatushaus show workshop.

The Pilatushaus is named for Pontius Pilate and its facade is one of many in the town decorated in the traditional “Lüftlmalereien” frescoes you can find throughout Upper Bavaria. 

Few might be as elaborate as the Pilatushaus, which depicts ornate Italian-style columns and a balcony where Pilate is shown condemning Christ to death, but a guided tour takes visitors around the best.

The Passion Play

The Passion Play is held every ten years, in years ending with a zero – so the next is in 2020. 

Any tour, however, takes in the Passion Play Theatre, a simple building whose purpose is revealed by a simple cross on its exterior with the figures of many worshippers at its feet.

The play was first put on at the town cemetery, after an epidemic of bubonic plague starting in 1633 had touched nearly every family. 

Local people vowed to perform the Passion Play, showing the story of Christ’s suffering and death, if they were spared any more deaths. The deaths stopped, and they have kept their promise to perform it every decade since.

The only change to the timing was in 1680, to move the date to the present arrangement of “zero” years. 

The play itself has evolved in line with the style of its times, from a simple Reformation Tragedy through an elaborate Baroque interpretation to the present-day more theatrical version.

Christian attitudes to Jews – blaming them for the death of Christ – have been a controversial part of the play’s history, particularly during the Nazi era, but the script has been slowly adapted to reflect changing beliefs. 

Christ’s Judaism has been emphasised, the Romans have become the main villains and other changes have been made in line with modern theological interpretations of the story.

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Changing tradition

In 1990 married and older women were allowed to perform for the first time, a controversial decision settled only after an appeal to the local High Court.

The theatre has also evolved, from the temporary staging over a plague pit of 1634 to the latest modern one that holds 5,000 spectators for each night of the five-month-long run from May to October. 

The stage itself can support 800 cast members and remains open-air, even as comfort and shelter has improved for the always sold-out audience.

The most important thing to remain constant is the fact that the play is performed by local people. 

Only those born in Oberammergau, married to a local for ten years or resident for 20 years can take part. 

The only exception was in 1950 to allow several hundred refugee children to join the crowd scenes. The 1940 production was cancelled because of World War II.

There are roles for around half of the town’s 5,300 inhabitants, some 1,000 as actors and the rest taking on tasks such as musicians, costume makers or backstage staff. 

The play bonds the community and families, with up to four generations possibly taking part at any one time. Roles often run in the family and some families can trace their participation back for centuries.

Musicians and singers have to be trained from among the townsfolk, so any child with musical talent is nurtured from an early age. Few towns of such a size can have as many active choirs and orchestras.

Preparations for the Passion Play

Male actors start growing their beards 15 months beforehand, with even the local policemen allowed to ignore a regulation that normally keeps them clean-shaven.

More active preparations than beard growing and choir practise start in November of the year before. New sets have to be built, roles cast, costumes made, lines learnt. 

Rehearsals are held on the open-air stage all through the harsh Bavarian winter.

From May, there are five performances every week and only the major speaking roles have substitute actors. The rest of the cast have no days off, although performances have dropped slightly in length through the centuries. 

In 2010, the play ran from 2.30 to 10.30pm, with one three-hour intermission at 5pm to allow the audience to eat a meal.

As well as the central performance, a notable feature of the play is the series of stationary tableaux showing scenes from the Old Testament. 

Accompanied by music from the choir and orchestra, these aim to cast light on the inspiration Jesus himself drew from these ancient stories and offer a respite from the suffering shown so unflinchingly onstage.

Although performed in German, the strong Bavarian accent of the cast makes it hard to follow even for some German speakers. 

The audience are mostly English-speaking, with many British and Americans, but the story is such a familiar one that a translation is not really needed. 

owever, a book with the script in various languages is given out to anyone who wants to follow the words or retain a souvenir.

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The Passion Play venue

The open-air stage means the auditorium is not completely dark but a small torch will help you read the script as the evening draws in. 

Alpine nights can also be chilly, so bringing a warm coat or shawl is also a good idea, even on a summer day.

Spectators have been coming in large numbers since the 1830s, a process accelerated by the opening of the railway from Munich in 1900. Now, around half a million visitors will spend a night in the town or nearby to see a performance during its run.

It’s a financial bonanza for local shops, restaurants and hotels, a contradiction to its religious origins that is not lost on the people of the town.

A large part of the fascination people have with Oberammagau is the contrast between the performance and daily life.

Unlike professionals, who pick up and drop parts regularly, these actors have only one role which they inhabit for more than a year, peaking with six months of performances. 

You no longer have to be a good church-going Christian to take part in the play but anyone who does has to confront some serious questions about the story of Jesus and their own beliefs.

In an age where entertainment asks fewer and fewer such questions, and indeed we seem to have less and less time for such deep questions, a play that is based on more than 400 years of faith stands out as a unique event indeed.

My mother, who is in her early eighties, would love to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau. I must admit I’m not particularly religious, but feel I should go with her. What does it entail, and what else is there to do in the region?

The Passion of Christ has been performed in the small south German town since 1634 when the community originally performed the play, hoping it would be spared the further ravages of plague.

The Passion Play, a choral and orchestral work, is performed throughout the summer every decade. It’s about as ‘locals only’ a production as you will find – some 2,000 on- and off-stage roles.

You must have been born and bred in Oberammergau – or have lived there for at least 20 years – to participate.

In 2020, from 16 May to 4 October, there will be 102 performances, five days a week, with the story of the Gospel, from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion and Resurrection told in two parts, in the afternoon and the evening.

One- and two-night packages have just gone on sale, but tickets-only won’t be available until 2019 and there is a risk you could end up disappointed.

If you’re booking the trip yourself, there is lots of accommodation, though that may well be snapped-up by escorted tours.

The town is surrounded by breathtaking Bavarian mountain scenery, so it’s ideal for keen walkers. And if you want to extend your stay, it’s just 55 miles south of Munich and 50 miles north of Innsbruck. If you left it until the last performances, you could also take in Munich’s Oktoberfest – an intriguing mix of holiday interests!

Extract taken from Saga Magazine, April 2018. For more travel tips, subscribe to the magazine today!


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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