The Dramatic Moment


Jesus-Actor Tobias Flunger, 1850 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau Archive)

A bright room in the Oberammergau Museum, accessible via a wooden staircase. The view wanders around and tries to take in everything at once. Impossible. Numerous faces, some black and white, some in colour, looking at you. Photographs from 170 years of Passion Play history extend around the room, plus four more large displays in the middle of the room, one picture each on the front and back. Behind that, somewhat hidden, the Communion table, the oldest prop from the Passion Play in Oberammergau.

The oldest photograph of the Passion Play shows the Christ actor Tobias Flunger entering Jerusalem in 1850. Black and white, the outlines slightly blurred. A time travel of a different kind. In addition to the official illustrated books from 1922 to 2010, postcards, photo albums and private collections of photographs from the Oberammergau Passion Play are displayed in showcases in front of the main exhibition room. On the walls, pictures of the past decades can be found. The development of the enactment is clearly visible. The change from largely documentary photographs to scenic (close-up) shots. However, the focus is always on the performers: they are recognisable, sometimes represented in the same role over several Passion Plays, sometimes in new roles. Some are seen growing up, slipping into leading characters.

Unfortunately, no photographs from the Passion year 1860 have survived, but in 1870 the two photographers Jacob Steigenberger (1828 - 1896) and Bernhard Johannes (1848 - 1899) were given the sole privilege of photographing the performers, some Living Images, the Lord's Supper and the Council scene before the Play began. In autumn of 1871, after the Passion Play had been interrupted and resumed due to the Franco-Prussian War, the Play was documented at the express request of King Ludwig II by his famous court photographer Joseph Albert (1825 - 1886). In this process, 60 photographs were taken, including all the Living Images and the important mass scenes. On the one hand they were intended for Ludwig II. privately, but on the other hand the pictures were sold in different sizes together with the actor photographs of Steigenberger and Johannes in large editions also as souvenirs. This was the beginning of the commercial photographic culture of memory around the Oberammergau Passion Play. Joseph Albert's photographs are regarded as probably the first scene photographs ever.

Cain slayed Abel (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau Archive / Joseph Albert)

Caiaphas-Actor Hugo Rutz 1922 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau Archive / Heinrich Traut)

Until 1910, the photographs were similar. The actors were photographed in rigid poses and the drama was depicted in large gestures. The pictures appear static. More detailed scene photographs were not taken. First Heinrich (Henry) Traut (1857 - 1940), who was considered a leading art photographer of his time, distanced himself from this and created expressive and emotional pictures full of dynamics with his photographs of the Passion Play in 1910 and 1922.

Farewell to Bethany 1910 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau Archive / Heinrich Traut)

Expulsion of the Temple Merchants 2000 (Photo: Passion Play Oberammergau / Brigitte Maria Mayer)

The comprehensive renewal of the Passion Play by Director Christian Stückl since 1990 is also reflected in the content and form of the photographs for the illustrated books and postcards. For example, the long tradition of portraits of leading actors has not been continued since then. The performance, film and photography artist Brigitte Maria Mayer (*1965), who lives and works in Berlin, photographed the Passion Play in 2000 and 2010 and found a new, strong and emotional visual language for the illustrated books, which are now much larger in format. She explained her approach to the photo shoots of the Passion Play in an interview in 2010: "I believe it is less about interpretation than about transporting one artistic form into another, performative theatre into staged photography - to produce an illustrated book that stands for itself and goes beyond mere documentation.”

In 2020, the already begun photo shoot by the well-known Icelandic photographer and camerawoman Birgit Gudjonsdóttir (*1962) had to be cancelled due to the pandemic-related cancellation of the Passion Play. A selection of the pictures already taken can be seen in the exhibition. In 2022 she will continue her work on the illustrated book for the Passion Play.

The special exhibition "The Dramatic Moment, Photographs of the Passion Play from 170 Years" will be on display at the Oberammergau Museum until Candlemas in early February 2021.

Text: Franziska Zankl
Photos: Municipality of Oberammergau Archive, Passion Play Oberammergau