An hour’s drive from the centre of Munich, there’s a little village that looks like it has come straight out of a child’s imagination. A child who’s learning to use colours and understand the magic of fairy tales; a child who opens their sketchbook and begins to dream. The place is called Oberammergau. Just over 5,000 people live there and the facades of their homes are covered in stories and characters painted in bright, lively colours. It’s as if a street art crew had landed here sometime in the middle of the 18th century.

Taking a stroll around Oberammergau’s streets is like shrinking to the size of an ant and wandering across the pages of a children’s storybook or Biblical landscape. In Germany, these houses are referred to as Lüftlmalerei. The origins of the term itself lie with the craftsman behind many of these painted scenes, Franz Seraph Zwinck, who lived in a house called Zum Lüftl.

© Ammergauer Alpen GmbH, Oberammergau Tourismus. photo: Stephan de Paly.

According to Florian Leischer, communications officer for the town, most of the frescoes centre on the “representation of saints and biblical scenes.” The idea emerged from the same fear that led the town’s inhabitants to stage a passion play every ten years: an epidemic of bubonic plague which devastated Oberammergau in 1663. With the paintings, “they expressed their need for protection and the piety of the Catholic population,” explains Leischer.

Religious motivation, however, served to take visual representation to another level. One of the best examples is the Pilatushaus. The building’s facade creates an optical illusion, breaking the boundary between reality and fiction. Painted details appear to be detached from the flat surface and deceive the eye: from a distance, the columns, lintels and staircases seem solid and accessible.

© Ammergauer Alpen GmbH, Oberammergau Tourismus. photo: Thomas-Klinger.
Ammergauer Alpen GmbH, Oberammergau Tourismus. photo: Stephan de Paly.

Each house is a canvass and the wall paintings in Oberammergau feature much more than just biblical stories: there are “classical motifs from landscape paintings about rural life and hunting,” as well as characters from popular literature. When the streets are covered in snow, theses creatures seem to hide away, plotting their escape from a journey and a destiny always set to repeat itself. Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods and, as their story continues scene by scene, are tricked by the witch before finally breaking free: everything happens on the very same facade. On another, Little Red Riding Hood searches eternally for her grandma.

Lüftlmalerei appear in other rural areas of southern Germany and Austria, especially in Upper Bavaria and Tyrol. “An unusually large number of 17th century wall paintings still remain in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen District.” Other villages nearby with fairytale facades are Unterammergau and Bad Kohlgrub.

© Ammergauer Alpen GmbH, Oberammergau Tourismus. photo: Thomas Klinger.

In Oberammergau, materials breathe. The town is also well-known for its crafted goods, for the wooden animals and figures that watch over visitors from the window displays. It’s a miniature world to experience like that child who opens their sketchbook; that child who hasn’t yet learned to differentiate between reality and fantasy and believes colour to be the best measure of all things.

Cover: ©Ammergauer Alpen GmbH, Oberammergau Tourismus