The Vanishing (Spoorloos)
Director/Adaptation – George Sluizer, Screenplay – Tim Krabbe, Based on the Novel The Golden Egg by Krabbe, Producers – George Sluizer & Anne London, Photography – Toni Kuhn, Music – Henry Vrienten, Production Design – Santiago Isidro Pin. Production Company – Golden Egg Film/Ingrid Productions
Gene Bervoets (Rex Hofman), Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (Raymond Lermoine), Johanna Ter Steege (Saskia Wagta), Gwen Eckhaus (Lienecke)
Rex Hofman and Saskia Wagta, a Dutch couple holidaying in France, stop at a gas station. Saskia goes to a Coke machine but fails to return. That is the last that Rex ever sees of her. Over the next three years, Rex obsessively tries to piece together every possible clue to Saskia’s disappearance but cannot find any answers. Behind the disappearance is French chemistry professor Raymond Lermoine, who is conducting an elaborate experiment to prove whether he is a wicked person by seeing if he is capable of conducting acts of evil. Moved by Rex’s pleas on tv, Lermoine eventually goes to visit him, offering him a challenge to come and discover Saskia’s fate.
This Dutch film is an excellent thriller. When it came out at international film festivals, The Vanishing left audiences buzzing with excitement over its ending. This alone was enough to get it released on the arthouse circuit where it was a substantial crossover hit and later the subject of an English-language remake.
What is so effective about The Vanishing is the disarming jollity with which it knocks over the genre. Instead of a disturbing, creepy figure, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s psycho of the show is, in a surprise move, played with a comic maladroitness. We watch him going through clumsy attempts to pick up women victims – having to blow his nose on the handkerchief he is attempting to chloroform them with only to knock himself out, encountering his daughter’s volleyball teacher – with increasing amusement. The film is all the more dangerous for doing so, lulling one with comedy and by depicting the psycho of the show as a harmless buffoon. So disarmed, one arrives at the genuine shock ending, which is something that left every audience exiting talking. Here The Vanishing is akin to the likes of Blow Up (1966) and The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) in its refusal to conform to a thriller outcome and tell of Saskia’s fate, with startling effect. The final image the film goes out on is unforgettable.
The script is exceedingly clever. It is written not in a linear line but as an elliptical overlapping mandala where the two different stories and points-of-view – of Gene Bervoets’ obsession with the missing Johanna Ter Steege and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s comic stalkings – interweave and link up at later points. (Early in the piece, we are given the mythic image of the Golden Egg, the title of the original novel, about characters floating alone in golden eggs where it would be disastrous should they collide. This image hangs over the film – we are left with a vivid sense of people’s aloneness and the disastrous of the merging points-of-view). The elliptical nature of the plot and the subtlety of the clues laid out is breathtaking. A second viewing of the film, after one knows the ending, becomes even more fascinating in realising the meaning of some of the initially enigmatic behaviour and seeing the early appearances of Donnardieu and his car in the parking lot. Bernard-Pierre Donnardieu gives a marvellously jolly performance, while Johanna Ter Steege has a sunny loveliness that is all the more disturbing for her unspoken fate.
The film underwent a disastrous English-language remake as The Vanishing (1993), which abandoned all the elliptical storytelling, added an explain-all ending and substituted a performance by an enigmatic Jeff Bridges for the jollity of Bernard-Pierre Donnardieu. It ranks as one of the worst ever remakes – the great crime is that it was also made by George Sluizer, who wrote-directed this version. Sluizer has never enjoyed the same sort of success as this again. His other genre films include the psycho film Crimetime (1996), the ghost story Dying to Go Home (1996) and The Stone Raft (2002) wherein a geological eruption causes the Iberian Peninsula to become separated from the European mainland.