Two Weddings and a Disaster


1970 in Oberammergau: Rehearsals for the Passion Play have to begin later than planned due to the snow masses on the stage. Cardinal Döpfner withdraws the mission of the church, the "missio canonica", from the Passion Play because of its anti-Semitic tendency. At the premiere the rain is pouring down, the Bavarian Minister-President Franz Joseph Strauß is late and only attends the crucifixion. And in August there is also a disaster alert: the Ammer river bursts its banks after severe storms, flooding the Passion Play Theatre. "Things look particularly bad in Oberammergau," the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on 11th August 1970. "The streets and basements are flooded; the Passion Play had to be stopped on Monday because the mass of water also ingressed into the Festival Theatre. The American Army offered the trapped tourists in Oberammergau accommodation, warm blankets and food." One can say that 1970 was a turbulent year.

It was the same year that both the couple Arretz from the Lower Rhine and the couple Herrmann from Baden-Wuerttemberg got married. Probably some more got married, but these two couples went on their honeymoon to Oberammergau. And both wanted to return to this place 50 years later to attend the Passion Play.

Wolfgang and Dorothea Arretz at their golden wedding anniversary (photo: private)

When Wolfgang Arretz learned that it was the year of the Passion Play, he immediately planned a side trip to Oberammergau for his honeymoon to Stubaital. He had practically grown up with amateur dramatic performances; his father, as a young teacher, had studied religious plays with the Catholic youth. But what Arretz saw in Oberammergau was in a completely different league. Even if the Play was "simpler" compared to today: "Those were colossal impressions.” How this whole town lived with the Passion Play, how everything here revolved around theatre, that impressed him deeply. Spontaneously, the young couple decided to attend the Play every ten years from now on. In 1980, his wife could not come there, their youngest son had just been born. Apart from that, they always came there together: to the anniversary Play in 1984, 1990, 2000 and 2010. He took each of his three sons with them once, and for two of them the visit coincided with their First Communion.

This allowed Arretz to follow exactly how the Play has changed over the decades. "The big change came in 1990, when Christian Stückl took over the direction of the Play. Since then, an incredible amount has changed for the better, so much more effort has been put into the costumes and the living pictures.” He was particularly impressed by the way the 2010 Play was moved to the afternoon and evening: "The atmosphere was suddenly much more intense. You could always hear a pin drop fall in the hall during the crucifixion scene. It's an experience that you take with you for a lifetime. But in the twilight it was even more moving.” Even with the public scenes, a cold shiver runs down his back every time. His wife, who has been caring for refugees for over 30 years, was always shaken when the angry mob demanded crucifixion: "Unfortunately, this uncontrolled hatred still exists," she then said to her husband each time.

Elfriede and Clemens Herrmann in 1970 were only in town to invest the money from the bridal shoe auction in traditional costumes. They didn't have tickets for the Passion Play: "At that time there was no Internet, so it wasn't that easy to get tickets.” With an intense sunburn, which they had got at the lake Staffelsee, the two drove from Murnau, where they stayed overnight, to Oberammergau. They looked at the nativity scene exhibition in the Passion Play Theatre, where no performance took place that day - and thought: "We don’t care about Janker and Dirndl - we'll buy a real Oberammergau nativity scene.” A good investment, Clemens Herrmann still thinks today. The Janker would probably not have fit him after a year, but the nativity scene is still in use for Christmas. The hobby filmmaker Herrmann also bought a Super 8 film with shots from the Passion Play, which he mounted into their wedding film. "In contrast to the film from Neuschwanstein, the film from Oberammergau was of good quality. You could digitise it," he says. After their Oberammergau excursion, the couple Herrmann suddenly found themselves in the severe storm in Murnau that led to the flooding. "Luckily we already had our crib with us in our car in a nice and neat way," said Herrmann.

In 2020, Arretz wanted to travel there with a part of the amateur drama group "Salz & Pfeffer" of the Kolping Family Vorst from Tönisvorst, which he has been leading since 1999. Whoever plays theatre himself must experience this, he says, because "one cannot describe what is happening in Oberammergau.” When the postponement of the Play due to the Corona pandemic became known, Arretz was not surprised, but nevertheless moved. He watched reports about the cancellation on YouTube, listened online to how parts of the Passion Play music sounded in the deserted town on Good Friday. "I was stunned," he recalls. And you hear that he has to swallow. He informed his people about the postponement and asked them who wanted to join in 2022. Everyone wanted to. The tickets have long since been rebooked: same row, same seats. Only two years later. And until then, he has his Oberammergau devotional items. Arretz has collected all the illustrated books and textbooks since 1970. And some more literature about his favourite place in Bavaria.

Elfriede and Clemens Herrmann on their wedding day (photo: private)

Elfriede and Clemens Herrmann wanted to visit the Passion Play 2020 for the first time, for their golden wedding anniversary. Travel to Murnau to Griesbräu once again, walk in old tracks. They did so anyway, even though the Play did not work out again. In Murnau it was as wonderful as it was back then: "Great beer, nice rooms, nothing to complain about. Also the weather gave them "a little déjà-vu: again there were two days of continuous rain and Olympiastraße was under water as in 1970.” They cancelled their tickets for the Passion Play. Will they try again in 2022? "Yes, that could happen," says Herrmann. "Now you can simply book via the Internet.”

Text: Anne Fritsch
Photos: private