Once every 10 years, the devoted folk in the Alpine village stage a passion play that attracts world attention and scores another victory for living traditions.
During the nine years in between, the villagers act like most others. They gossip a lot, and quarrel.
However, one fierce row recently left the town bitterly divided and proved to be no ordinary rural spat. Sparked by charges that the traditional play was anti-Semitic, a debate raged here that took on the dimensions of an international scandal, drawing in Catholic and Jewish officials and nearly turning a few plowshares into swords.
For the moment, the feuding appears to have dissolved with the melting snows, helped along by the sure commerical sense that an angry town is bad for tourist business.But when the curtain goes up next month on the play's 1980 version, more than just the Lord's passion will be reflected in it.
Snuggled in a remote valley of the Bavarian Alps, where blotches of white are still visible atop a circle of craggy peaks, Oberammergau is a picture of pastoral tranquility. The town seems almost to be a painted scene with quaint chalet-style houses and religious murals on some buildings.
There is also a veneer of wealth evident in such things as the $6 million town pool, complete with wavemaking machine, paid for by the 1970 play performances.
The play, which depicts the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, was first staged in 1934 to fulfill a vow to present it every decade in thanks for the ending of the black plague. With a cast of 600 and another 800 assisting with costumes and staging -- all amateurs and local citizens -- the play has been presented regularly for more than three centuries except on three occasions when war intervened.
But increasingly since the end of World War II and the Third Reich, the play has been criticized abroad as well as inside West Germany for its apparent anti-Semitic tenor and message.
Ten years ago, even teh Vatican, committed to a more ecumenical policy, withheld its official sanction. In the United States, about 70,000 tickets and hotel reservations were canceled because the American Jewish Committee and B'nai Brith's Antidefamation League called for a boycott.
This caused some residents, determined to reconcile pious devotion with profitable tourism, to give thought to making the play less obnoxious.
In a village where one is regarded as an outsider unless all four grandparents are buried in the local churchyard, traditions understandably die hard. Besides, once raised on a diet of Catholic fundamentalism, the craftsmen and herders here never have considered their play offensive and defiantly reject the notion that they have anything against Jews.
"Nobody here really thought the play was anti-Semitic," said Hans Maier, a woodcarver and the play's director. "we have been presenting it long before Hitler."
Erich Schmid, a hotel owner and town council member added, "anything in Christainity is anti-Semitic if you want it to be."
There had been attempts before the 1960 and 1970 presentation to molify foreign public opinion by doctoring the current script, written in the 19th century by Alois Daisenberger, a monk at nearby Ettal Monastery. But the effects had been largely cosmetic and failed to alter the play's strident tone or the thrust of its message -- collective Jew guilt for the death of Jesus.
A group of worried burghers, led by Hans Schwaighofer, the head of Oberammergau's woodcarving school, dug out from the archives an older, 18th century script written by another Ettal monk, Ferdinand Rosner. Though archaic in from and language -- it is written in 9,000 tetrameter verses -- it is free of any tinge of anti-Semitism and met the approval of both Catholic and Jewish officials.
The town council also liked and approved of the older script. But a village majority did not. They found its language stilted, its action overly dramatic and its grand style unbefitting the simple tastes of this tiny village.
Besides, they feared that the new version would scare off more, old tourists instead of drawing new ones.
So, in 1978, the town voted out the council and elected one that would give them back their play. Faced again with the prospect of a U.S. Jewish boycott, some Oberammergauers joined with Catholic clergymen to edit the more objectionable material out of the old text.
Gone is Pontius Pilate's line, "The curse be on you and your children." The scene of the Pharisees in the temple, formerly portrayed as a snarling mob, has been toned down to depict a mild crowd.
For the first time, this line was added to the prologue: "Far be from us all efforts to seek guilt among others. Welcome to you, also, brothers and sisters of the race from which Jesus came."
The play has long been a way of life for Boerammergau. Children start appearing in it at age 6, and many look forward to the day they are selected for a leading role.
To search out the best talent, training plays are held during the decade between performances. Being chosen for a main part ranks as the highest honor in town -- perhaps a little too high, since some actors have managed to parlay their roles into political and commerical gains.
"A lot of American people who come here stay at the Hotel Alte Post, because they know its owner played Jesus twice," said Paul Lindelbauer, a spokesman for the town's tourist office.
Hoping to diffuse this star cult, the play council chose two casts to alternate in this year's performance.
This should make of some interesting comparisons. Of the two Marys, one is Irmi Dengg, 41, a shopkeeper whose gentle manner and deep devotion make her a natural for the part, while the other is Martha Widemann, 22, who, still wowed by her role, has been captured by it. Of the two Christs, one is tradesman Gregor Brietsamter, 48, who has played the part before, while the other is Rudi Zwink, 21, the mayor's son and a dental student, who regards Jesus as the ultimate antiestablishment figure.
Meanwhile, not everyone is happy about the way things have turned out. A few feminists in town complain that women have no official say in staging the play, and the American Jewish Committee still is not satisfied with the script.
"The controversy has died for the moment," said reformer Schwaignofer. "But that does not mean the idea of reform has been abandoned.
A half-million visitors are expected to net $12 million for the town and its shopkeepers this summer -- money that the council has already earmarked for a new guest house and a bypass road. It seems Oberammergau, which has grown by 600 to a population of 5,100 in the past decade, has a traffic problem.
The play will be performed 100 times between May 25 and September 27. Each performance lasts six hours with an intermission for lunch.