Nestled at the foot of the Alps, Oberammergau looks much like any other picturesque Bavarian village. But every 10 years it is transformed into the stage for a monumental passion play. And 2010 is one of those years.
There is no passion without the Oberammergau angels
It all began 377 years ago when the residents of Oberammergau made a vow to God. If he spared them from the bubonic plague that was sweeping the region at that time, they would give thanks by staging a passion play once every ten years.
Centuries and many generations have passed since then, but the people of Oberammergau are still honoring that age-old pledge. For the past few months the 5,000-strong community has been preparing for this year's play, which will be performed by a troop of amateurs between May and October.
Prior to and during those months, the village becomes a whole different world populated by men with long hair and beards. Not wigs and stick-ons, but the real thing - because in keeping with tradition, men who want to be involved are not allowed to visit the barber for more than a year before the premiere.
Passionate about the passion
Passion play director Christian Stueckl at work
Every night the amateur actors gather in the little theater for rehearsals, currently led by director Christian Stueckl. It's his third time at the helm of the production and he is no stranger to the challenges of working with an amateur cast.
But he is determined to get the most out of the players, and not only because he wants the half-million expected visitors to go home content. For Stueckl, the passion is a part of his heritage.
Like most all of the approximately 2,500 actors involved, Stueckl is native to Oberammergau and he has been close to the passion all his life.
"I grew up in a family where the passion play was a constant source of discussion," he told Deutsche Welle. "It was pretty much fed to me in my mother's milk. In 1970, when I was seven years old, I was always at the passion with my grandfather. I became deeply involved at a very early age."
On being Jesus and Mary
With just a few weeks to go until opening day, the whole village is now deeply involved. Perhaps nobody more than thirty-year old Frederik Mayet, who is playing the part of Jesus for the first time.
Letting their hair grow is a condition for participation
In order to prepare for the role, he and the other lead actors spent two weeks in Israel under the guidance of a religious specialist. And although the trip was helpful, it didn't diminish the size of the task he faces.
"When I found out that I was going to play the part of Jesus, I was overwhelmed," Mayet said. "But after the initial euphoria evaporated, I began to think and to realize that it is a huge challenge."
He is not alone in feeling anxious. Sculptor and mother of two Andrea Hecht is playing Mary, mother of God, for the second time. As such she will have stand before thousands of people and express her utmost desperation at seeing Jesus on the cross. She too, sees it as a challenge.
"The acting is really hard work, seeing which emotions you have to let out from inside. From one second to the next you have to be weak and fall to the ground, or shout at the top of your voice, and it's not that easy to do in front of strangers."
Andrea Hecht will play Mary
Both lead actors enjoy the rehearsals and the mood of excitement mounting in the village as the premiere date inches closer. But there is still much to do. The stage set isn't finished and all the costumes have to be dyed by hand in order to get the exact colours needed to make the clothing look authentic.
Business not as usual
It's a lot of work for everyone involved, but ultimately the play is of huge benefit to the village and its residents. Werner Hirrlinger oversees the sale of visitor packages, which range from between 200 ($266) and 800 euros in price, and include entry to the passion and one or two nights in the village.
Despite the worldwide economic crisis and a decline in tourist visits, most notably from the US, Hirrlinger is quite happy with the way business is going.
"Oberammergau has been very spoiled in the past, because the performances are generally sold out a year in advance," he said. "That's not the case this year, but our returns rate is only about five percent."
Advertsing for the passion
Returned tickets are put back up for sale and the mayor of Oberammergau, Arno Nunn, is keen to see them snapped up. He's hoping that all 102 performances will sell out, not least because the little Alpine community desperately needs a financial blessing.
"While it is a pledge, there's no denying the fact that it has huge financial implications for the community," Nunn said. "As in previous decades, we're expecting as many as half a million visitors. In the year 2000, that brought in a return of around 25 million euros ($34 million) and we hope to reach a similar level this year."
And if they do, the passion in Oberammergau will not only have saved the community from the plague, but from the very modern threat of financial ruin.
Reporter: Daniel Scheschkewitz (tkw)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn