Travel: Festivals - Experience the local Passion

One year from today, a small Bavarian village will celebrate its release from the devastating effects of plague more than three centuries ago. By Cathy Packe
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The Independent Culture
EASTER MAY be over this year but the events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ will be the focus for the next year in a small village in the Bavarian mountains. Earlier this month the actors were chosen for the leading roles in next year's Passion play in Oberammergau.

The claim to fame of this German village, population 5,000, is the result of a civic promise made in 1634. Plague had been rife for centuries; as merchants, bandits and pilgrims travelled across the continent, fleas carrying the Black Death accompanied them.

An outbreak in the Ammer valley killed more than a fifth of the population in a single year, and the village committee decided that desperate measures were needed. They took a solemn vow that, if the rest of the village were spared, they would perform a play in thanks every 10 years.

From that day onwards no one else died from the plague, and the play has gone ahead every decade since.

Anyone born in the village is eligible to take part; indeed, almost half the population are expected to be involved in the crowd scenes. The local council selected the actors for the main roles - two for each part, so that they can share out the gruelling, all-day performances. Rehearsals begin in the autumn. The crowds start work a few weeks before the first performance on 22 May 2000, a year from today.

With such a large cast, and about half a million people expected in the audience each season, Oberammergau needed something more sophisticated than the average village hall in which to put on its play, so a special theatre was built. Usually open to tourists during the years between the plays, it is now being upgraded, and will be covered with scaffolding for the rest of this year. It is a race against time to get Bavaria's own millennium dome ready in time for the start of the season.

The modern theatre building looks incongruous set against the more folksy style of the rest of the village. Many of the houses are painted with luftlmalerei: traditional, coloured frescoes that depict biblical scenes and add decoration around the plain wooden windows and doors.

One of the most ornate examples is the Pilatushaus, which has been through various incarnations in its 200-year history, and is now an exhibition hall and community centre. Its name is derived from the painting of the betrayal of Christ on one side; other walls show the Crucifixion and Resurrection; all were done by the local master fresco painter Franz Zwinck, in the late 18th century.

The impression as you walk around is that everyone is trying to make money out of religion: not only are the houses painted with devotional scenes, but every other building seems to sell religious carvings. But if you go beyond the showrooms - into the workshops where the wood is being carved - it becomes clear that this is not simply an attempt to cash in on the village's theatrical success.

Oberammergau has been a centre of wood-carving for 800 years, since a group of Augustinian monks settled in the valley and tried to make ends meet by selling objects made from the trees around them. Many of the workshops are long-established: the oldest is the firm of Georg Lang, which was founded in 1775.

As you wander around the vast shop, you wonder why the assistants are hovering so nervously; after all, at first glance a lot of the stuff on sale looks touristy. Look more closely and you see that everything is hand-carved; and the price tags suggest that what you're buying is not just a holiday souvenir but a serious investment.

The wood-carving trade is a genuine native craft, passed from father to son down the years. What started as an industry making household utensils has adapted itself over the years; now, most of the carvings are of religious figures, in keeping with the local enthusiasm for the events surrounding the death of Christ.

The Passion play may take place only once every 10 years, but its popularity has enabled the village to flourish during the years in between.

Information about next year's Passion play is available from the tourist office, on (00 49 8822 92 310) or on the Internet, at www.oberammergau.de

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