Das Verschwinden des Philip S.- The disappearance of Philip S.

This book, not yet translated into English, is a ‘Roman’- a novel- by Ulrike Edschmid, about the young man Philip S and his slide from radical art student of the late 1960s into an underground political activist. Though categorised as a novel, the account is autobiographical , told from the viewpoint of the young  Ulrike about her relationship with Werner Sauber, the son of prosperous Swiss parents, who turned his back on his wealthy but sterile family background to study at the newly founded Berlin Filmakademie. For me this book provided a helpful approach to the radical politics of the 60s:  Philip S’s personal story, the development of his ideas as a film maker and then as a political activist, are told against a background of international events, including the Vietnam War, the American invasion of Cambodia, the murder of four demonstrators by police at Kent University, which explain the spiralling reactions of students and the increasing tension and violence of the protests. At the same time, we see young people and students hungry for ideas about how to live differently, with different values, and the book positively fizzes with energy when describing the speed with which they took over empty shops to house the Kinderläden, marched into an academic’s office to seize an unpublished essay by Walter Benjamin, threw out their bourgeois possessions, organised the structures of communal living. The novel was written 40 years after the events , and the gap between then and now is significant; at times the 60s seem an altogether foreign country and at others just another point on a continuum. The laborious production and distribution of the illegal newspaper seems to have more in common with the Scholl’s leafletting of the Munich Aula in 1943 than with contemporary methods of communication used by political activists in the Arab Spring. Yet the reference to H. and his film on how to make a Molotov Cocktail seems to represent the thin end of a very large wedge, post 9/11 and bomb making instructions available on the Internet. As a literary device, the gap of forty odd years is used powerfully at times to suffuse the telling of events with a kind of nostalgia, not so much for the headiness of those times as for the terrible loss of young lives that this political activity entailed. The use of image in telling this story seems to transcend the gap of time, or rather link those radical times to our own. Philip S.’s innovative use of the brand new video camera to film political meetings and to subvert conventional news broadcasts is breathtaking and at times hilarious in its audacity, while at the same time presaging our era where the image is acknowledged as powerful and ever present. On a more intimate level, Ulrike Edschmid uses photographs to reflect on Philip S., the film maker, lover, companion and friend, seeking signs of the person he would become as he slipped away from her. This is a moving story, balancing a personal account of those times against the larger canvas of political unrest and social change in Germany in the 60s and 70s.

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