Friday, October 29, 2010

The High Price of Knowing in George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing”

A Dutch man, Rex (Gene Bervoets), and his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), are on holiday in France. They stop at a gas station for a rest and to refuel, and sitting in his car is a man (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who affixes his arm with an artificial cast and sling. When Saskia enters the station for drinks before the couple hits the road again, she does not return. Rex searches the area and questions the gas station manager and employees, but there is no trace of the woman. Three years later, Rex is consumed by his search for Saskia. Though he has a girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), her companionship cannot outweigh his obsession. Rex has received postcards from someone claiming to know what has happened to Saskia, but when he waits at a specified meeting place, there is no one. When Rex finally makes an appearance on television to tell the story of Saskia’s disappearance, Raymond, the man from the gas station years ago, approaches him, saying that he can tell Rex of his girlfriends fate.

George Sluizer’s 1988 film The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos, the original Dutch title) is an elegantly complex feature, most notably for an early introduction to and subsequent spotlighting of the villain. Following Saskia’s vanishing, the film’s perspective switches to Raymond, a family man and school teacher, as his plan slowly materializes. He is meticulous, each of his acts another step towards his objective. What makes Raymond such an appalling character is the fact that he is thorough, mapping out every aspect and even practicing (at one point involving his daughter in a scenario, unbeknownst to her). Another frightening point is the origin of specific ideas, sometimes coming from someone else, such as his family. Raymond is, as he himself says, a sociopath, cold and detached, and his very nature is chilling. When his wife expresses concern that he may have a mistress, Raymond alleviates her worries not with charm but in a direct, businesslike manner.
Much of the film plays like curtains being drawn back, not for a shocking revelation, but rather to unveil the inevitable horror. Sluizer offers clues throughout the course of the film, not truly hiding anything. The ending may not be the preferred destination, but it is the only way. This gives deeper meaning to an early scene, when Rex and Saskia run out of gas in the middle of a dark tunnel. After retrieving gasoline, Rex drives the car out of the tunnel, visualized from his point of view. The meager light at the tunnel’s exit gradually increases, revealing to the audience what it can already see -- and standing in the light is Saskia, who is waiting at the end.

The Vanishing was based on the novella, The Golden Egg, by Tim Krabbé, who wrote the screenplay adaptation with Sluizer. The story’s title is referenced in the film by a description of Saskia’s dream, in which she is t
rapped inside a golden egg, a dream that Rex also experiences during his desperate search. Sluizer, who also produced, and producer Anne Lordon won a Golden Calf for Best Feature Film at the Netherlands Film Festival. The film was the Dutch submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category but was ineligible since a great deal of spoken dialogue was in French. Actress ter Steege, in her film debut, won an European Film Award for Best Supporting Actress (the very first year that the European Film Academy held a ceremony).
Actor Jeroen Krabbé is author Tim Krabbé’s brother. The actor has appeared in a number of films, perhaps most famously in The Living Daylights (1987) and The Fugitive (1993). He also co-starred with ter Steege in Immortal Beloved (1994).
Sluizer directed a Hollywood remake of The Vanishing in 1993, starring Keifer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Nancy Travis. The narrative structure is only slightly altered, with a significant change being additional screen time for the U.S. version of Lieneke (played by Travis). The most drastic revision, however, was the ending, which was compromised to allow for a more upbeat conclusion. The movie was a commercial and critical failure.


  1. Sark, you have posted some good ones for this Halloween marathon, and I think so far this is my favorite. Maybe because I have never seen either the original or the remake. From what you say, I am quite sure I would like the original better. I can't stand the way American films always have to put an upbeat ending on things. Drives me crazy, and always dilutes the story. One example of that is the original The Wicker Man, marvelous British film of the 70's I think, remade in America in the 90's(?) with Nicolas Cage. Typical re-writing, dumbing down of the story, not nearly as good.

    You have really piqued my interest, and I would love to see this movie. Do you know if it is available anywhere? Your write-up is as interesting as the movie must be!

  2. Becky, the Criterion Collection released Sluizer's original on DVD. It seems to still be in print. Like all Criterion releases, the DVD transfer looks great!

  3. Sark, this is a fantastic review of The Vanishing. I have always loved the remade of this movie with Keifer Sutherland. However, recently I watched the foreign version. I liked it too. I think I would have appreciated the Dutch version had I read your review first! Both films are very much alike in their plots, but there are subtle differences in the way the characters of Rex and Raymond are presented. Those small differences make the two films very intriguing. I enjoyed watching them both. If you haven't seen either of these movies, the endings are different and each one is very creepy! As a woman I have to mention this, the top that Saskia wears is beautiful. I would love to own one like it. However, notice her top is yellow in the photo above and that color along with her pale white skin resembles an egg. She represents "The Golden Egg" in her dream. Sark, a terrific review of a really good movie. I enjoyed reading it. Oh, Becky are you right about the remake of the Wicker Man with Nicholas Cage...awful movie.

  4. I enjoyed your article about this very disturbing movie. I have seen the American film many times and just recently saw the original. The original is very dark and is probably more in line with the author's vision, but I really like Nancy Travis' strong character and resourfulness in the American version. Very informative and well written write-up of a fine film.

  5. Sark, this is a superb review of one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. An atmosphere of dread drapes over the entire picture. I much prefer the original version, though it is indeed incredibly depressing. Your interpretation of the tunnel scene highlights its visual power. The real horror of this film isn't what happened to Saskia, but rather what it did to Rex. Again, Sark, this is a truly excellent analysis.

  6. Sark, this film is intense. The ending just blows your mind. The remake with Kiefer Sutherland was just horrible--that ending was so contrived. I also agree with Becky about The Wicker Man: why ruin a film arc by changing the ending? Loved reading your review, Sark.