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The Criterion Completist – The Vanishing (1988)

April 1, 2012

 

written by: Tim Krabbé and George Sluizer
produced by: Ann Lordon and George Sluizer
directed by: George Sluizer
rating: unrated
runtime: 107 min.
release date: October 27, 1988 (Netherlands), January 25, 1991 (USA) and September 18, 2001 (Criterion Collection)
available: Hulu Plus and Netflix


The term “banality of evil” was coined in attempt to describe the actions of the Nazis, and of the everyday citizens who performed unspeakable atrocities in the name of their country. Since then, this phrase has been used to describe the more mundane processes of serial killers and psychopaths, who adopt ideologies of “evil” as a normal, everyday lifestyle. The Dutch film “The Vanishing” stakes this concept literally as we follow the dull, boring life of mild-mannered Raymond Lermorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a middle class high school chemistry teacher who plays with his kids, takes his family on vacations to their summer home, and clinically tests the effects of chloroform to more effectively kidnap his victims.

Unfortunately for Dutch couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), on vacation in France, they decide to take a detour to “see some local color”, and stop at a busy rest stop off the highway. Saskia goes inside to buy some drinks while Rex waits in the car and…she doesn’t return.

She simply vanishes completely, with no apparent clues as to her disappearance. Here the film jumps ahead three years and we see Rex, still desperately hunting for Saskia, turning to newspapers and television for any information, and obsessed to the point that it’s ruining his relationship with his new girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus).

To say anything more would ruin the exquisite, almost unbearable tension that runs throughout this film. George Sluizer, adapting Tim Krabbe’s novel “The Golden Egg”, has created a masterpiece of controlled filmmaking here, deliberately pacing every scene and shot to draw out maximum suspense. Also, the cold, clinical portrayal of evil in this film reminded me of the work of Michael Haneke, especially “Funny Games” and “Cache”. That’s because what Sluizer effectively does in “The Vanishing” is implicate the audience members as accomplices to the sociopathic Bernard. He knows what happened, Rex will do anything to know the truth, and we will watch it all because it is impossible to look away, unthinkable to not know what happened.

 

 

Like Haneke did with “Funny Games”, Sluizer decided to remake his own film for American audiences. It’s a bizarre move that very few directors have made. Unlike Haneke’s well-received second version of his work, Sluizer’s 1993 film starring Jeff Bridges, Keifer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock was a flop. Regarded as an unnecessary waste, Sluizer apparently wanted to bring his work to an unfamiliar audience, but it just didn’t take and it’s reported Hollywood ending probably didn’t help any.

In his fantastic essay on David Lynch, David Foster Wallace describes the scene in “Blue Velvet” where Dennis Hopper turns around in the seat of his car to look directly at the captive Kyle McLaughlin and, staring directly into the camera (at “us”), says, “You’re like me”, as possibly the most uncomfortable moment of his film-going history. Like a cinematic gaper’s delay, as viewers, we can’t look away – it’s in our nature, and slightly sickening to realize that. “The Vanishing” isn’t as explicitly voyeuristic as “Blue Velvet”, but that same feeling is at play here, as we watch with detached fascination as Rex gets closer and closer to the truth, all the way to the shattering finale.

This is a truly unsettling film, and will stick with you long after seeing it. If you’re familiar with the American remake and know the ending, or if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen either one, I would still recommend seeing this.

The Criterion transfer to widescreen is sharp and fine for this more “recent” film, and the subtitles have been cleared up some for easier viewing. An interesting note: “The Vanishing” (also known as “Spoorloos”, meaning “traceless’) was submitted to the Academy Awards in 1988 as the official Dutch entry for Best Foreign Film, but was denied because it had too much French dialogue in it to be a Dutch candidate. Only the Academy would disqualify a Foreign Language film for having too much foreign language in it.

 

RATING: ****

 

 

 

 

Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

 

 

 

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