FURTH IM WALD, GERMANY - For 500 years, this tiny Bavarian town has staged an annual performance of the story of St. George slaying the dragon that has grown from a humble religious procession into a spectacular event that today features the world’s largest walking robot.
On the day I had come to this medieval German town near the Czech border to witness this event, it was grey and rainy. The show would go on, despite the weather, but the thought of spending two and half hours sitting in the rain didn’t sound like fun.
Prior to the start of the show, I visited some of the sights in the town related to the performance. The Drachenhöhle is a museum that explains the long history of the St. George play known as Drachenstich that is staged here each August. It displays old photos from years gone by, antique costumes and models showing how the gigantic dragon robot was built. It also explains how it began as part of the annual Corpus Christi procession, but broke off from the church in the 19th-century as a secular event.
It’s all in German and I had skipped the English audio guide, so I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it was worth visiting because it’s also the “garage” where the gigantic, fire-breathing robot dragon is parked for the other 50 weeks of the year when there are no performances. I was able to inspect the 15.5-metre-long, 11-ton monster up close and it truly is a remarkable creation. The detail of its scaly skin, flapping wings, powerful claws and fire-breathing mouth add to the realism. It is so complicated that it requires four operators to control during a performance.
As I stepped out of the museum, I heard church bells ringing. Someone explained to me that the bells were calling the actors to church to pray for a good performance. I hoped they were also praying for an end to the rain.
This mostly Catholic town has only 9,000 residents, but as many as 1,400 of them take part in the St. George spectacular, along with 200 horses.
Furth im Wald certainly plays up its dragon connections with winged serpents visible in all sorts of signs and displays and every other shop or restaurant seemingly has drachen in its name. It’s no wonder that the town is also known as Drachenstadt, the City Of Dragons.
Left: The mechancial dragon. Centre: A local dresses in costume. Right: Dragons are everywhere.
Dominating the medieval town’s skyline is a 19th-century tower that replaced the origional that was destroyed by a devastating fire. Visitors can climb to the top for breathtaking, panoramic views of the town below and the mountains of the Bavarian and Bohemian Forest in the distance. Adjacent to the tower is the Landestor und Drachenmuseum where you can see the dragon used in the annual Drachenstich performance before the construction of its robotic successor. It is certainly an impressively large creation, but it pales in comparison to the modern version.
When we eventually clambered to the top of the tower, we didn’t get to enjoy the views for very long because the skies broke open and it began to pour rain. As I climbed the stairs back down to the ground, I dreaded the soggy night ahead watching the play.
There were still a few more hours before the show began, so we enjoyed a meal of traditional Bavarian food at a local biergarten, or beer garden. The meal featured lots of pork, sausages, dumplings and, of course, beer. As we ate, the skies began to lighten and the rain stopped. Maybe it wouldn’t be so soggy after all.
We took our seats in the town square where the play is performed. On opposite sides of the square are giant castle gates and walls that are opened and closed to let people on horseback, armies of soldiers, horse-drawn wagons and, of course, the mighty dragon come and go on stage as the story unfolds.
The dragon makes an early appearance. He eats some sacrificial virgins, breathes some fire, but it’s early in the evening and it is still light out so he doesn’t seem all that scary. As the play progresses into the night, the dragon becomes much more menacing in the darkness and the light of the flames spewing from his mouth appear even more dramatic.
It’s all in German so it’s hard to follow the dialogue if you don’t speak the language, but the tale of Good versus Evil is obvious and the spectacle of the hundreds of costumed extras streaming in and out of the square during the play is enjoyable by anyone.
Over the years, the story has been adapted for the times. For many years, it was a Cold War allegory, the town’s proximity to the Iron Curtain of the nearby Czech border amplifying the theme. It has since been rewritten to reflect the medieval origins of the play.
Above: It seems the whole town and a few neighouring cities come out for the festival.
The stars of the show are always a local man who plays St. George and a local woman who plays the princess with a different pair being chosen each year. In the climax of the show, George battles the ferocious dragon. There is much sturm und drang, but he finally clambers onto its back and plunges his broadsword into its skull. Once again, Good triumphs over Evil. At the end of the show, the star performers receive flowers and there is much applause for their efforts. Even the robot dragon has flowers placed in his mouth and he bows his head to acknowledge the roaring crowd.
Throughout the performance, no video or photos are allowed, but when the show is finally over, the crowd rushes into the square to get up close with the dragon robot to grab some selfies with the true star.
As I join the crowd to get my chance to see the dragon up close, I realize that not a single drop of rain had fallen during the show and the performances were flawless. I guess the visit to the church earlier in the day by the performers was a success.