The Oberammergau Passion Play emerged from a 17th century vow that if God spared villagers from the bubonic plague, they would reenact the Passion every 10 years. Now the event rakes in millions of euros each decade.
The Bavarian villagers perform a Passion play every 10 years
Spring is in the air in the village of Oberammergau in southern Germany. A few stores selling hand-carved figures of Jesus Christ and other souvenirs are open, trying to attract tourists with Bavarian folk music. It's a charming scene – for now at least. But come mid-May and the village will be inundated with visitors.
That's when the village famously stages its Passion play, the dramatic presentation of the Passion of Christ – the trial, suffering and death of Christ. It's a tradition that traces its roots back to 1634, when the residents of Oberammergau vowed that if God spared their community from the bubonic plague ravaging the region at the time, they would perform a Passion play every 10 years.
"We have about 5,000 residents here. But we get that many visitors every day when the Passion play is on,” Annie Hutter from the local tourist office explained.
“Many of the guests often have to find accommodation in neighboring towns like Murnau, or even on the other side of the Austrian border," Hutter added, highlighting the popularity of the event.
The big draw is the cast of roughly 2,000 amateur actors – all born and bred in Oberammergau – who will recreate the final five days in the life of Jesus Christ over a period of six hours. They will perform the play more than 100 times before the finale on October 3.
The Passion play draws audiences from all over the world
Arno Nunn is the mayor of Oberammergau. He's not allowed to play a role in the play because he was not born in the village. But he certainly shares the villagers' excitement.
"On the one hand there's the historic vow. That's something the community really cares about,” Nunn said. “But there's no denying there are major commercial interests at work as well."
"In 2000, the Passion play generated revenues of 25 million euros. We hope this year's play will do just as well," he added.
The Passion play is normally a sell-out event. So most visitors book holiday packages that combine guaranteed tickets to the play with accommodation and meals. Prices range between 200 and 800 euros. But ticketing organizer Werner Hirrlinger says budget travellers may still be able to find a last-minute bargain this year.
"For decades Oberammergau was fortunate that its performances of the Passion play were booked out completely one year in advance,” Hirrlinger said. “But that's not the case this year. About five percent of tickets have been returned."
"We're still quite satisfied with the sale, although it's clear we're in a different situation compared to 10 years ago."
Frederik Mayet, who plays Jesus, visited the US on a publicity tour
As the fallout from the global economic crisis continues, overseas visitors are thinking twice about how they spend their hard-earned cash. And it seems many American visitors – traditionally a major contingent at Oberammergau – are staying away. That's despite a targeted and robust marketing campaign.
"The lead actors travelled to America for a publicity tour. Our Jesus introduced himself to the media," Hutter pointed out. "I think he was quite well received."
But local businesses are finding that the passion play is not the perpetual money-spinner they once thought it was.
The economic downturn has been compounded by director Christian Stueckl's decision to part with tradition and stage half the play in the evening. Stueckl said the darkness would create a better atmosphere for some of the scenes.
But the move has outraged restaurant owners. That's when visitors belong at the dinner table, they say, not the theatre.
Hotels across the region fill up quickly during the tourist season
Still, Frank Seyfarth, manager of the village's Sonnenhof hotel in, says the biggest threat to the Passion play business is not the start or finish time, but rather the times we live in.
"The generational change is difficult to measure, but a high percentage of youngsters nowadays don't even know what the Passion is,” Seyfarth said. “People in America are more familiar with it, but even there it's changing. A lot of young people just aren't interested."
Lessons from the past
Oberammergau has a reputation for living it up in the immediate years that follow a passion play. Recent decades have seen the community buy snow machines and build luxurious sporting facilities. However, mayor Arno Nunn says the time has come for the village to tighten its belt and think carefully about expenditures.
Mayor Nunn wants the village to be judicious in its use of this year's profits
"That's the real challenge - the blessing and the curse of the Passion!” he said.
"The extra income has enabled us to invest a lot in facilities for both residents and tourists,” Nunn added. “But these investments have to be maintained and that's where we've been pushing the envelope. We've accumulated a mountain of debt.”
He says this year in particular the village must use revenues from the upcoming season to pay off some of its debt and create reserves for the future. Oberammergau will have to make them last until the end of this decade, when the next season of the famed Passion play begins.
Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz (sje, rb)
Editor: Sam Edmonds