'The Vanishing' Tells the Horror of Privileged Lives in Prosperous Counteries

The evil is both banal and terrifying in George Sluizer's 1988 labyrinthine thriller.

The Vanishing

Director: George Sluizer
Cast: Johanna ter Steege, Gene Bervoets, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Studio: MGS Film
Release Date: 2014-10-28

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that most readers of PopMatters aren’t faced daily with threats to life and limb. In addition, while you may well enjoy classic horror movies, your enjoyment is probably based in your respect for their artistry rather than because you think Count Dracula is going to fly in your window this evening or the Wolfman will accost you during the next full moon. And yet, there are few things as enjoyable as a movie that can get past your defenses and deliver a good, old-fashioned scare. Alfred Hitchcock accomplished this in many films; Henri-Georges Clouzot did the same in Diabolique; and so did Dutch director George Sluizer in his 1988 film The Vanishing.

If you only know The Vanishing through the 1993 American version (a truly bad remake, although it was also directed by Sluizer), the first thing you need to do is wash that version from your brain. The 1988 Dutch-language version is the real deal, a film of great subtlety that taps a vulnerable spot in the psychology of modern people living privileged lives in prosperous countries: the possibility that inexplicable evil could enter your life and change it forever, for no reason that you will ever understand.

The Vanishing begins in the most ordinary of circumstances. A young Dutch couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are driving through France on a holiday camping trip. It’s a beautiful day, with the sun shining brightly and the grasses blowing gently in the breeze. A dark note is injected by Saskia’s narration of a recurring dream: she’s in a golden egg and can’t get out, then there’s a second egg and she feels that when the two collide, it will all be over. A more serious challenge to the day’s good vibes comes when their car runs out of gas in a dark tunnel, and they quarrel over the best way to deal with the situation.

But they’re young lovers and quarrels are part of the game. They make up at the gas station, with Rex promising never to abandon Saskia. They seal the deal by buying two coins symbolizing their commitment to each other. Radio coverage of the Tour de France is constantly heard in the background, emphasizing how ordinary a day this is. Then, Saskia heads off to buy some drinks at the station and never returns.

Sluizer has been telling a parallel story all along, about an older man (Raymond, played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who later becomes the film’s major character. Only later will it be clear how the two stories intersect. For this reason, The Vanishing holds up to repeated viewings, as you can enjoy the skill with which Sluizer drops hints about Raymond that will pay off by the end of the film.

While you are distracted by the immediately compelling story of Rex and Saskia, Sluizer is also feeling you information about the apparently boring Raymond (I’m not the first to consider him a personification of the banality of evil) Some of this information is apparently innocent (he owns an isolated country house and is a chemistry teacher) while some is puzzling and then disturbing (he administers chloroform to himself to see how long a given dose will keep him under, and goads his family into screaming so he can determine if the neighbors can hear them). Most suspicious is Raymond’s repeated testing of disguises and rehearsal of pickup lines, and his wife’s revelation that he’s been doing a lot more driving than can be explained by his version of his daily routine.

Gradually, Raymond becomes the film’s central figure. Three years later, Rex remains distraught by Saskia’s disappearance and continues to search for her, but he seems shrunken not so much by grief as by impotence. His new girlfriend (Gwen Eckhaus) becomes fed up with his constant preoccupation with Saskia and questions why he pays more attention to someone who very likely no longer exists than to someone who right there in the room with him. In contrast, Raymond’s confidence has only grown, and he orchestrates a meeting calculated to exploit Rex’s every weakness. Not until the very end of the film does Sluizer reveal what actually happened on the day of Saskia’s interference, and The Vanishing concludes with a real wallop worthy of Hitchcock.

The picture and sound on Criterion’s Blu-ray release are both first-rate, but the extras package is a little disappointing. Firs, the good news: the digital transfer was created in 4K resolution and it’s hard to find anything negative to say about it. The same goes with the soundtrack; while this is not a film that overwhelms you with obvious audio cues, sound is key to the storytelling, and this Blu-ray sounds as good as any I’ve heard.

Now the bad news: given the high bar Criterion has set for itself with previous releases, the extras package is underwhelming. The most useful extras are video interviews with Sluizer (19 minutes) and ter Steege (14 minutes), who tell the same story about on-set interactions between ter Steege and Donnadieu (basically, Sluizer had to give Donnadieu, already an experienced actor, a forcible timeout to stop him from harassing ter Steege, at the time a theater student). Sluizer also has a lot to say about his motivations for creating this film, and why he thinks it continues to terrify modern audiences. Other extras include the film’s trailer and an essay by film critic Scott Foundas included in the liner notes.

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