Cinema Obscura: The Vanishing (1988)
Conceptually a traditional missing person film is an impossibility. Despite factual evidence to the contrary movie audiences have been conditioned to accept that Big Brother is always watching. We are a society convinced that we are under constant surveillance, so how are filmmakers supposed to present an adequate mystery when the audience is acutely aware of the, albeit fictionalised, methods in which a person could be found?
The solution presented in George Sluizer’s Spoorloos (hereby referred to by its English translation the Vanishing) is to have the mystery focused on the why, rather than the how. The Vanishing is not about the search for a living person, but about the search for truth and the search for a rationalisation of the irrational. This is the reason I was so taken with the film.
Going back to what I wrote in Ouroboros I first watched The Vanishing last night, and yet I was already aware of the shocking ending. Because of the apparent ineptness of the American remake, made by George Sulizer himself, the ending to the original The Vanishing, which was subsequently altered for the remake, had become a sort of cinematic legend. As such I was presented with the resolution to the film as a cultural meme long before I sat down and actually watched the movie. Of course now I have the dilemma of whether to discuss the ending in this review, under the assumption that everyone who is interested in the movie already knows about it, or to leave it decidedly ambiguous. It is an old movie, but a movie whose appreciation can rest upon knowledge of those last moments. I have therefore added spoiler warnings for your convenience.
The Vanishing starts off with a dual narrative, interlinked by one key event. Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege) are a Dutch couple holidaying in France. After Saskia goes missing at a service station Rex starts a frantic search to find her. The other narrative follows the person whom we assume is Saskia’s abductor, a French family man by the name of Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Whilst Saskia serves as the catalyst and emotional core (more on this later) of the movie, the intellectual weight of the film is carried by Rex and Raymond who engage in a cat and mouse game of sorts
Raymond is the more fascinating character of the two, largely because of how the film approaches him. One of the ways the movie defied my expectations was by immediately showing Raymond’s preparation for the abduction mere moments after we have seen Rex’s initial search for Saskia. It completely changes the tone of the film and stops it from being a traditional thriller and skews it towards something far more cerebral and rewarding. By showing Raymond’s preparation for and subsequent failed attempts at abductions the audience is put into an unusual and uncomfortable place.
Raymond is the focus of nearly 50% of the films running time, and despite being a complete sociopath he is also a far deeper and involving character than Rex. His relationship with his family, particularly his daughter, and the way he practices the abductions are perfect examples of this juxtaposition of humanity and sociopath menace. There is also an intelligence and practicality to Raymond that is also enthralling. Watching him test how secluded his holiday home is, testing how long the effects of chloroform last and practicing how he will trap his victim is utterly fascinating. It is also especially disturbing if like me you have a notion of where his actions are ultimately leading.
Rex is a far less relatable character, despite the fact he is the protagonist of the film. His character arc is a fairly well worn one, with him pursuing the truth of Saskia’s abduction with a fevered determination. The majority of his screen time is spent with him pursuing Raymond who three years after the abduction is still goading Rex. Desperate to meet the abductor face to face, Rex follows invitations sent to him via postcard for a meeting. Even three years after the fact he is determined to find Saskia, despite the affections of his new girlfriend.
What is interesting about Rex is that within the narrative his only purpose is become another plaything for Raymond. Raymond has already extolled power over Rex by making him chase around the country, but when Rex goes on National Television begging for a chance to meet the abductor and for information about Saskia’s fate he sees an opportunity for even greater control. The third act of the film revolves around a roadtrip of sorts, with Raymond approaching Rex and agreeing to take him to Saskia. This journey takes up more than a third of the films running time, the discussion between the two men becoming the films intellectual core.
It is at this point that I’m heading into spoiler territory, so look away for the next few paragraphs if you want to appreciate this absolutely fantastic film with as little knowledge as possible.
As soon as Rex gets into Raymond’s car his fate is sealed. There is no going back for him; the entire process of the road trip is simply a means for Raymond to manipulate Rex into destroying himself. As they drive Raymond starts to detail the choices in his life that would lead him to the abduction of Saskia. His rationale is a thing of genius, largely because of its underlying motive. Everything he says, every story and anecdote is shaping Rex’s mindset to make him easily malleable. The most obvious allusion I can think of is Russian Literature, particularly Crime and Punishment, where characters begin to rationalise the complete destruction of another human being for purely intellectual reasons.
The reason for the abduction and murder is both coldly logical and utterly insane, operating on the kind of skewed perception that only true sociopaths can appreciate. The idea of not being a true hero, until you’ve proven that you can commit acts of true villainy is hardly a weighty philosophy but its presentation within the context of the film is so well realised that it becomes quite brilliant. Of course it is hard to ascribe any truth to what Raymond say, when it is quite clear his intention is to make Rex choose to be killed at his hands. The climax of the film, where Rex drinks a cup of obviously spiked coffee to learn the truth about Saskia and finds himself waking up buried in a coffin underground is made all the more disturbing because of the illusion of choice.
End of Spoilers
What makes the end of film so truly heartbreaking and terrifying is the final flashback to the day of the abduction where we see Saskia and Raymond interact and ultimately see Saskia’s abduction first hand. After the intellectualising of the crime, it is a hard blow because it adds a human element to something which had become increasingly abstract. There is so much joy and vitality and energy in Saskia’s last moments that it takes the academic sheen off of the abduction and reverts the film back to its horror roots.
The Vanishing is a beautiful, intelligent and meticulously crafted movie. The kind of film which makes you glad to be a fan of foreign films. It is cold and intelligent and dark, and yet bursting with humanity, and beauty and life. It is an odd film, but a film which is rewarding for its oddness.