The Bootleg Files: The Passion Play of Oberammergau

BOOTLEG FILES 664: “The Passion Play of Oberammergau (1898 film at the center of a historic lawsuit).

LAST SEEN: The full film has not been seen since its original release.


REASONFOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A landmark patent infringement case.


Thisweek’s column is different because it does not involve a production that can only be seen in an unauthorized presentation. Instead, we are going to revisit a long-forgotten story about one of the first legal challenges of patent infringement connected to the film industry.

In 1897, Thomas Edison received a patent for a device called the Kinetograph,which used celluloid film to create moving pictures. Edison was zealous in protecting his patent – he was aware of the commercial potential that existed in the creation and exhibition of this new medium, and he was eager to create a monopolistic control before it could expand into a full-blown industry beyond his power.

However, the clever minds of the day were not easily frightened by the complexity of Edison’s patented creation or his well-known penchant for bringing litigation against potential rivals. One of those who sought to challenge Edison was a resourceful Englishman named William C. Paley, who happily circumvented Edison’s control and created his own motion picture camera.

In circumstances that are not quite clear today, Paley hooked up with fellow Englishman Richard G. Hollaman, who ran a hodgepodge New York venue called Eden Musee that specialized in waxwork exhibits, marionette shows, magic lantern shows, and the new motion picture presentations. In the summer of 1897, Hollaman entered into an informal agreement with W.B. Hurd, who was headed to Europe to film a staging of a Passion Play in Bohemia. Hurd initially agreed to premiere the footage of this filmed record at the Eden Musee, but reneged on Hollaman and sold the rights to the theatrical production company Klaw & Erlanger, which packaged the work as “The Horitz Passion Play” (named for the village where this dramatic presentation of the final days of Jesus’ life was staged). Hurd’s footage was presented in Philadelphia in 1897, with Hollaman inattendance. However, Hollaman was not impressed with the Hurd footage from Europe and believed that he could create something better using the same material.

Hollaman recalled a failed 1880 theatrical version of the Passion Play penned by Salmi Morse and discovered the rights to work belonged to a costume company owned by Albert Eaves, who was a friend of actor and Hollaman associate Frank Russell. Hollaman conspired with Eaves and Russell to create their own version of the Passion Play – and in a groundbreaking work of cinematic fraudulence, they would claim it was a recorded version of the famous Passion Play presented in the German village of Oberammergau – even though much of Morse’s text deviated considerably from the celebrated German work.

This unlikely endeavor corralled William C. Paley, who not only had his own movie camera but also created a projector called the kalatechnoscope that could project the film on a screen. Theatrical director Henry C. Vincent was hired, with Frank Russell cast in the key role of Jesus. A studio was set up on the roof of the Grand Central Palace, a 13-story New York City exhibition hall, to accommodate the production.

From the beginning of production, things went awry. Overhead studio lights had yet to be invented, so filming relied entirely on whatever available sunlight beamed across the Grand Central Palace rooftop. Vincent had no concept of how to shoot a film, but since he was contractually tied to the production he could not be easily fired. Thus, he was carefully shooed off the set by Russell and Paley with the fib that they could not shoot any scenes due to insufficient light – and once Vincent was gone, Russell and Paley took over the day’s work. Underthese circumstances, it took six weeks to shoot 23 scenes totaling approximately 2,000 feet of film. Paley’s camera captured the production at a 30 frames per second speed – when projected, this totaled 20 minutes of screen action.

The finished work was titled “The Passion Play of Oberammergau” and Hollaman commissioned a poster to advertise the work – the first known example of a film poster. “The Passion Play of Oberammergau” premiered on January 30, 1898 at Eden Musee. Because the concept of intertitles was not yet invented, the film was shown with an off-screen narrator detailing the various scenes.

Anyone viewing “The Passion Play of Oberammergau” quickly realized from its painted backdrops that it was not filmed in Germany. The New York Herald denounced the fraud, stating: “All the preliminary announcements of this exhibition have tended to convey the impression that this is a genuine reproduction of the celebrated passion play at Oberammergau.” Klaw & Erlanger tried to halt the screenings of Hollaman’s work, but this only added to the publicity for the presentation.

Despite the chicanery of the marketing, “The Passion Play of Oberammergau” was praised by New York-area clergy who attended screenings. Hollaman began to receive requests for screenings outside of New York, and he started to sell prints for a then-exorbitant fee of $850 per copy.

At this point, Thomas Edison pounced. Claiming that his patent on the motion picture camera was violated, Edison took Hollaman and his creative collaborators to court – and won. Hollaman was required to turn over the negative and the rights to “The Passion Play of Oberammergau.” Edison broke the complete 20-minute film into segments that were sold separately to exhibitors, although the complete production was still being shown as late as December 1899.

Edison’s control on the nascent film industry by citing his patent on the film camera came to an end in 1902, when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Edison only owned rights to the sprocket system that moved perforated film through the camera and not the complete concept of the motion picture camera. By that time, however, it was too late for Hollaman to retrieve the rights to “The Passion Play of Oberammergau.”

Today, “The Passion Play of Oberammergau” only exists in a fragment that is preserved at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; no copies of the 20-minute version are known to exist. Hollaman and his collaborators slipped into obscurity, quickly forgotten by a film industry they helped to launch. As for “The Horitz Passion Play” that inspired the creation of this work, it is now considered a lost film.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film andtelevision productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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