“My daughter was bursting with pride. But I thought that her admiration wasn’t worth anything unless I could prove myself absolutely incapable of doing anything evil. And as black cannot exist without white, I logically conceived the most horrible deed I could envision at that moment.” —Raymond, The Vanishing
[Warning: The ending of The Vanishing has likely been as spoiled by now as the ending of The Sixth Sense, but on the off chance you’ve lived the last 23 years in the dark and wish to remain so, watch the movie and come back later. The ending of the 1993 Americanization will also be spoiled, but that’s of far less consequence to mankind.]
Based on Tim Krabbé’s novel The Golden Egg, George Sluizer's The Vanishing was a minor sensation when it finally debuted in U.S. arthouses in late 1990/early 1991, a full two years after it was made. Most of the water-cooler talk revolved around the ending, which for American audiences was shocking partly for being so understated and creepy and partly for concluding the film on such a note of bleak finality. It was both predictable and mystifying that the famously botched American remake, directed by Sluizer himself, would alter the outcome to square with more conventional Hollywood thrillers. Why buy a property only to cut out its most widely noted element? In any case, the 1988 version of The Vanishing endures because it zigs where most psycho-killer movies zag, staged with a matter-of-factness that breaks from the thick atmosphere and emphatic shocks of other thrillers of its kind. It’s a film about the banality of evil that leans heavily on the banality part.
Which isn’t to say it lacks tension. Quite the contrary. In its cat-and-mouse game between a man still searching relentlessly for his missing girlfriend, three years after her disappearance, and the sociopath responsible for abducting her, The Vanishing creates a fascinating dynamic between the obsessive urgency of the former and the half-bored, clinical mirthlessness of the latter. There’s never any question over who is in control of the situation, and the seeker seems to know it: He continues his pursuit anyway, with no instinct for self-preservation, because he can’t help himself. He walks right onto the spider’s web, and the spider can do what it will. That’s why The Vanishing unnerved so many viewers: Not because it ratchets up tension like a conventional thriller might—and the deeply stupid climax of the remake did—but because its hero yields so willingly to its villain. The film taps into a feeling of helplessness that’s not unlike getting lost in a bad dream.
The too-symbolic opening finds Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), a vacationing couple from Amsterdam, stuck in a dark tunnel with no gas and no working hazard lights. Saskia begs Rex not to leave her alone, but off he goes looking for gas anyway. When he returns, Saskia is no longer in the car—he calls for her, gets no answer, and eventually finds her at the end of the tunnel with a flashlight. “In the tunnel, when you called for me, I loved you more than ever,” Saskia says, later making him swear never to abandon her like that. However clumsily established, that conversation helps explain Rex’s rationale when it seems most inexplicable; otherwise, what happens in the last 45 minutes or so defies all reason.
The disappearance happens at a busy highway service station in France, where Saskia ducks in for a beer and a soda and never resurfaces again. In one of the film’s biggest breaks from convention, we get a full glimpse of her abductor, who’s seen lurking around the station with a fake sling around his arm. Sluizer's no-frills style makes the aftermath of Saskia’s vanishing seem eerily real: Rex sets about finding her logically—looking around the convenience store and parking lot, asking the cashier and patrons if they’ve seen her, and gradually turning into an amateur sleuth in the process—and as each minute passes, his panic amplifies. The timeline then cleaves off brilliantly in two different directions: Three years later, with Rex still posting missing-persons signs, however much it tests his new girlfriend’s patience, and the unspecified period before the kidnapping, as Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) prepares for the job. In this scene, after a test to see how many minutes chloroform will keep his victim knocked out, Raymond practices his technique:
As The Vanishing unfolds, we learn that Raymond is the picture of middle-class normalcy, with an unquestioning wife, two adoring daughters, and a job as a chemistry teacher. We also learn, much later, that he understands himself to be a sociopath and that the kidnapping (and worse) was an experiment in satisfying a need within himself. He recalls an incident where he jumped into a river and saved a drowning girl, earning the admiration of his girls, who see him as a hero; it was then he resolved to do something evil, “the most horrible deed I could envision at that moment.” For Raymond, taking Saskia was not a crime of passion or perversion, or even some twisted moral vision like the one articulated by the serial killer in Seven. It was just an experiment in narcissism, a way to test the depths of his cruelty.
In that sense, Rex and Raymond are bonded by curiosity—Rex obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened to Saskia, and Raymond plumbing the bottomless chasm of his own soul. For the two of them to come together in the final third is absurd on its face; most men in Rex’s situation would want to harm Raymond grievously and certainly wouldn’t extend their trust to him as a guide through his own crimes. But Sluizer and Krabbé (who wrote the script) make their connection oddly plausible, because neither man is driven by emotion, at least not to a prevailing extent. Raymond seems capable of feeling nothing, but three years after Saskia’s disappearance, Rex has put the woman herself largely behind him; his motives at this point are nearly as clinical and distant as Raymond’s. In the scene where Raymond introduces himself, Rex can only bring himself to resist so much. He’s going to get into that car, and Raymond knows it:
[Remember, big-time spoilers ahead…]
Of course, the ending of The Vanishing was all anyone was talking about at the time—as arthouse secrets go, it foreshadowed The Crying Game on a smaller scale. Just the notion of ending the movie with our hero being buried alive was radical enough to fuel some coffeehouse chatter. A more conventional thriller would, say, have the hero buried alive, only to be discovered at the last minute by his girlfriend and unearthed in time to kill the villain with a shovel. (Thinking about the American remake still gets me steamed, clearly.) Seeing it again, two things stand out about the ending: 1. That it’s revealed in the same matter-of-fact style that animates the rest of the movie—Rex agrees to drink a potion that knocks him out, and lo, he wakes up underground. Enormously effective in its simplicity. 2. The moment is played, to some degree, for a dark laugh. Rex understood when he took the potion that something like this might happen to him. I took his brief chuckle to mean “Of course.”
Virtually every film featured in the New Cult Canon column has a strong, often idiosyncratic directorial vision; otherwise, its appeal would not be cultish in nature. The Vanishing strikes me as an exception, and that’s not necessarily a weakness. You don’t come away thinking George Sluizer a master director—and his mostly obscure filmography bears that out—but the film benefits from its unshowy, meat-and-potatoes storytelling. It’s creepy, in part, for revealing evil so plainly, without having to underline it stylistically. There’s no point to what Raymond does—even his explanation makes no sense—and The Vanishing’s blankness complements this.
June 16: Schizopolis
July 7: May
July 30: Zodiac