German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

Passion Play
Director Christian Stückl guides actors in rehearsals for the 42nd Passion Play to be performed in Oberammergau, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

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‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

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Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

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7 of the best destinations for an autumn break in Germany

Though the hot summer days are long gone, autumn in Germany can be just as charming. Here are 7 great places to visit in the colder months.

7 of the best destinations for an autumn break in Germany

1. Allgäu

Though stunning all year round, the mountainous region of Ällgau in southern Bavaria is particularly beautiful at this time of year. Varied hiking trails offer explorers plenty of fresh air and autumnal landscapes, as well as impressive historical landmarks.

A particularly pleasant hiking path for all abilities begins at the Immenstadt train station and leads via the sleepy hamlet of Zaumberg up to the picturesque Siedelalpe, to the Großer Alpsee (big Alp lake).

The Allgäu region is also dotted with charming historical castles, like the 19th-century fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle, the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle and the ruins of the centuries-old Eisenberg and Hohenfreyberg castles which all offer spectacular mountain views.

Trees around the Neuschwanstein castle take on autumn colours. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

The Neuschwanstein castle and surrounding area have a particularly special charm at this time of year. As the castle itself closes at 6pm, visitors have plenty of time to descend the peak to watch the autumn sunset over the Alpsee lake next to the Museum of the Bavarian Kings.

2. The Moselle Valley

Romantic wine villages, fairytale castles and palaces, varied hiking trails and steep and vineyard-covered slopes characterise the stunning Moselle region in Rhineland-Palatinate.

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The region, which follows the meandering path of the Moselle river from Trier to Koblenz, is widely considered one of the most impressive river landscapes in Europe.

The sun rises over the Moselle village of Detzem and the vineyards. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Harald Tittel

The autumn months are a great time for taking long walks through the vineyards or for sitting in the courtyard of a winegrower in the fading sun with a glass of Moselle wine.

Those who enjoy a sporty holiday can explore the Moselle Cycle Path, which starts in France and runs for over 300 kilometres to Koblenz. On the German stretch of the tour, there are plenty of opportunities to make a stop at one of the small wine-growing villages such as Bernkastel-Kues, one of the most beautiful towns in Germany.

3. The Black Forest

With its mystical lakes, enchanted paths and dense forest – the varied nature of the black forest region makes it a perfect destination for an autumnal break.

A woman walks along a hiking trail along Feldberg in the southern Black Forest. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp von Ditfurth

Autumn offers the perfect backdrop for a tour by mountain bike or a hike through the forest. In the winegrowing villages, wine taverns offer regional specialities and, along the Baden Wine Route, visitors have a choice of several wine festivals to enjoy on autumn weekends.

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In clear autumn weather, the Feldbergsteig peak offers magnificent views as far as the Vosges Mountains and, even as far as the Alps.

4. The German Islands

Vastly popular in summer, the German islands in the North and Baltic Seas offer a quieter, but no less picturesque, retreat in the colder months.

By early autumn Rügen’s beech trees start to turn yellow and are a particularly breathtaking sight from the top of the famous chalk cliffs which stretch along 15 kilometres of coastline. In the autumn, visitors can also enjoy a natural spectacle, as flocks of cranes make a stopover on the Baltic Sea island during their journey south.

The deciduous trees on the chalk coast in the Jasmund National Park on the island of Rügen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Büttner

Autumn on the North Sea island of Sylt – which is hugely popular in summer – is characterised by deserted beaches which are perfect for long, bracing walks.

The offshore salt marshes and the Wadden Sea on the North Sea Island of Pellworm also have their own special charm at this time of year.  A stiff breeze sweeps over the rugged landscape making the island the perfect place for refreshing autumnal walks.

5.  The Mecklenburg Lake District

With over 1000 lakes and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ancient Beech Forest, the lake district in Mecklenburg West-Pomerania is a great place to discover nature in autumn, by foot, by bike or even canoe. 

The sun rises in the fog behind Schwerin Castle. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Büttner

Also, from October 8th to 23rd, over 2000 stately homes and manor houses throughout the state open their doors to the public. With castle and park tours, concerts, exhibitions, readings and numerous culinary events, there are a wide variety of cultural offerings to choose from for visitors to the region. Find the full programme of the Schlösserherbst (“manor houses autumn”) here (in German).

6. Regensburg

While millions of people will be flocking to Munich this autumn for the return of Oktoberfest, the Bavarian city of Regensburg, 120 km to the north, is also well worth a visit at this time of year.

The Stone Bridge on the Danube. In the background, St. Peter’s Cathedral in the old town of Regensburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Armin Weigel

A stroll along the banks of the Danube river in the autumn sun is particularly captivating, while the highlights of the ancient city – including St. Peter’s Cathedral, the famous Stone Bridge and Bismarck Square and the Presidential Palace – are perfect to discover at this time of year. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

Just outside the city gates, the Bavarian Forest also offers numerous opportunities for outdoor activities.

7. Lüneberg Heath

Lüneberg Heath, a huge nature park made up of heath and woodland in northern Germany, is one of the best places to admire the unique beauty at this time of year.

The oldest nature reserve in Germany, Lüneberg Heath is also one of the largest areas of protected woodland in the country, making it the perfect place to see the variety of foliage turn from green to olden yellow.

The sun rises over Lüneberg Heath. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp Schulze

The Heath is a great place for hiking at cycling in autumn, as chestnuts and acorns crunch underfoot and numerous cosy inns dotted throughout the region welcome weary hikers with hearty, autumnal cuisine.