Wednesday, July 29, 2020

L. Annette Binder's "The Vanishing Sky"

L. Annette Binder was born in Germany and immigrated to the U.S. as a small child. She holds degrees in classics and law from Harvard, an MA in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley, and an MFA from the Program in Writing at the University of California, Irvine. Her short fiction collection Rise received the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. She lives in New Hampshire.

Here Binder dreamcasts an adaptation of her new novel, The Vanishing Sky:
The Vanishing Sky tells the story of a German mother named Etta Huber who is trying to hold her family together during the closing months of WW2. Etta’s older son Max has come home from the Eastern front suffering from a mental breakdown, and Etta struggles to hide his condition from the authorities because she knows they’ll take him from her if they find out how sick he really is. She can’t rely on her husband Josef for help, since he’s become increasingly forgetful and nationalistic. At the same time, her younger son Georg, who is fifteen years old, runs away from his post in the Hitler Youth and tries to make his way back home to her.

One dream director for the book would have to be Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The Lives of Others is one of my favorite films. In it, Donnersmarck brilliantly shows how ordinary people struggled with doing the right thing when faced with the demands of the brutal East German regime. The regime and ideology are both different in my book, but the themes are largely the same — How do you navigate the expectations of an evil regime when the price of even minor resistance could be your freedom or your life?

Casting is trickier. It took eight years to write a first draft of The Vanishing Sky, and it would have felt odd to imagine the characters with somebody else’s face as I wrote their story. Now that the book is done, I still can’t really imagine actors portraying them, but I can think about them in terms of other performances that I’ve really admired.

Etta is in her early fifties, a devoted wife and mother who is willing to risk her life — and her marriage — to help her son. Her portrayal would require a performance utterly lacking in vanity. Like Reese Witherspoon (who was brilliant in Walk the Line) or Chela Horsdall (who beautifully portrayed Smith’s wife in The Man in the High Castle).

Josef, Etta’s husband, is tormented by his failure to distinguish himself during WW1, and he tries to find relevance now by helping Germany’s last-ditch efforts to push back the incoming Allies. He doesn’t express his anguish, but you can see it in his eyes. I think of Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in No Country for Old Men, Rufus Sewell, who brought great depth to his character in The Man in the High Castle, or the late Ulrich Mühe, who was deeply moving in The Lives of Others.

Georg is tricky to cast because he’s only fifteen and looks even younger. He’s conflicted about his sexuality and knows in his heart that he can’t conform to the expectations of the Reich. I’m reminded of William Jøhnk Nielsen’s vulnerable performance in In a Better World. And Max is a talented and charismatic young man who’s suffered a breakdown on his return from the Eastern front. Asa Butterfield has the depth and the feel of Max as a young man.

It’s strange and wonderful to think all these characters are out in the world now, no longer limited to my own imagination, but (hopefully) alive in the imaginations of those who read the book.
Visit L. Annette Binder's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Vanishing Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue