What To Watch: A Portrait of Terror in ‘The Vanishing’ (1988)
The original mixed language thriller is still on of the best films ever made.
The Vanishing is a 1988 thriller about the boyfriend of an abducted woman who years later receives messages from a man who took her.
Ever get so wrapped up in the search for an elusive answer that you can barely sleep, to be so overwhelmed by the unknown that it consumes you? Probably not. But that’s exactly at the heart of The Vanishing, a tense psychological thriller that is as much an examination of obsession as it is sheer terror. It’s not to be missed.
THE STORY: Directed by George Sluizer and based on the novel The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbé, the story begins with a young Dutch couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) on vacation in France. They quarrel when the car runs out of gas, but soon make up later at a rest stop where they bury two coins at the base of a tree to symbolize their love. Saskia then heads inside to buy drinks but the worst happens. She never returns.
Before all this, there is Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a chemistry teacher who has plotted for some time to abduct a woman, we learning later that he is a self-proclaimed sociopath who seeks to prove to himself that he is capable of the most evil possible. He has procured an isolated location, chloroform, and dons an arm cast and sling looking for prey. He finds Saskia. Years pass though, and as Rex becomes obsessed with knowing what happened, he is taunted by postcards from Raymond who seems to revel in the man’s misery.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Sluizer crafts a harrowingly tense thriller out of the simple premise, painting exquisite portraits of two very different men, each shaped by their relationship to Saskia. Sluizer would famously remake his own film in Hollywood a few years later, casting Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges in the roles, and while that movie is certainly entertaining, is a crushing failure in comparison, despite its often shot-for-shot approach. The Americanized version is a sterile take on the horror of the first and needlessly slaps a happy ending on with dreadful results, especially if viewed after the sensationally dark take of the original.
The first film does much better in developing the opposing personalities of Rex and Raymond, and while Bridges’ creepy take on the sinister abductor is notable in the 1993 redo, it still pales against Donnadieu’s wickedly sharp turn as Raymond here. While Bridges makes the man an easy illustration of a psycho, Donnadieu is much more subtle and removed from the clichés. His connection to the crime is unnerving.
Sluizer divides the film into three main parts, with the first act centering on the happy couple and the flashback to Raymond’s planning and rehearsal, to the middle focusing on the obsession that overtakes them both, to the finale that sees the two face greater truths about themselves. It’s a gripping experience that, even as we suspect much about what is happening, is nonetheless, sensational to watch. Pay attention to Sluizer’s direction as he creates a stunning visual journey of isolation and dread. What the suffering Rex endures in his search for truth makes for powerful cinema.
A GREAT MOMENT: To shed too much light on The Vanishing or Spoorloos in Dutch, would be a crime in itself, but rest assured, the film is a consistently nerve-wracking watch. If you like a good mystery or more especially, a study of human behavior, this is where to look. You could almost quite literally pause the movie at anytime and say yup, this is the best scene.
That said, there’s a particularly great moment at an outdoor café near the middle of the film where Rex sits restlessly in a wicker chair, taking long drags off his cigarette. He has been summoned here by Raymond, who sends postcards inviting Rex to join him, taunting him with promises of the truth about Saskia. He never shows. Instead, Rex is met by Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), a ravishing brunette he has become involved with, a woman who knows all about Rex’s obsession and while she has helped in Saskia’s search, grows weary of the strain.
I’ll avoid the conversation of the couple and instead focus on what Sluizer does with his camera, revealing to us something of great surprise that if you’re not watching carefully, might be missed. Sluzier demonstrates incredible restraint in offering as much as he does in this sequence, at one point straight out refusing to put into focus what we know is true. He puts great trust in the audience and pieces together a riveting moment of suspense while layering in an important evolution in the story. This is breathtaking storytelling and it’s all the more shocking when you compare it to his own remake a few years later, a film so bland in comparison, it seems made by an entirely different director.
THE TALLY: The Vanishing is a mixed language film that is really a movie that should not go unseen. A deeply terrifying story of loss and human compulsion, it is not always easy but is however greatly impactful. What would you do if you were Rex? It’s the harrowing question at the black core of the movie and no matter your answer, what happens in The Vanishing will not soon let you free. It’s what to watch.