A thriller as unassuming and meticulous as its villain, George Sluizer’s 1988 film “The Vanishing” hasn’t lost its power to create a sense of dread in the mind of the viewer. In fact, I think it’s even stronger now — a modern-day film couldn’t be this horribly patient at pulling us into its world and not letting us leave. “The Vanishing” is now out on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
The movie opens with a young Danish couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), driving through the south of France on holiday. Despite the open spaces, Sluizer creates a claustrophobic mood — Saskia describes a dream where she is sealed in a golden egg floating through space. A little later, the car breaks down in the middle of a tunnel, and Rex leaves a panicked Saskia to go get gas. She panics, but the crisis is fleeting, although we can’t help but notice the mouth of the tunnel looks like a golden egg.
It’s at a crowded rest stop where terror really hits, as Saskia vanishes without a trace. Sluizer films all this from Rex’s perspective, as his emotions shift from curiosity to annoyance to fear as he wonders why Saskia hasn’t returned to the car with their drinks. Everyone remembers seeing her, but nobody remembers where she went. Rex is so distraught he misses the frightening clue that the audience sees — the drinks, smashed underfoot on the pavement.
Now we meet a third man, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). He seems like a jovial if dorky dad type, with his bowl haircut and chinbeard. We spend a lot of time with him, enough to realize that he is somehow responsible for Saskia’s disappearance. But we don’t quite know how.
Three years pass, and Rex is fixated on finding out what happened to Saskia. And one day Raymond approaches him with a bargain. He’ll walk Rex through everything that happened to Saskia, step by step, right to the very end, and then he’ll know for sure. Does Rex need the closure of knowing Saskia’s fate so badly that he’ll willingly put himself in the hands of a killer? And the choice, of course, is extended to the viewer — will we let our curiosity get the better of us as well?
Rex’s nemesis, it turns out, isn’t really Raymond — it’s his own obsession. Sluizer moves us towards one of the most famous endings in thriller history, one that closes the loop on its story in a chillingly final way.
“The Vanishing” is a very strange kind of thriller — there’s really only one scene of violence (and it’s awful), and it’s villain is scary because he seems so normal. Donnadieu plays him as a true sociopath, driven by his own curiosity about his urges much as Rex is. There’s a seemingly innocuous scene where Raymond receives gifts from his loving wife and daughters at his birthday party. Later, he’ll use all those same gifts to allay Saskia’s suspicions. His normalcy is his real weapon.
Sluizer died in September, and never made another film that even approached “The Vanishing” (his American remake, featuring a copout ending and a hammy Jeff Bridges as the killer, was a disaster). The relatively slim bonus features on the Criterion edition include an extensive interview with ter Steege about her experiences on the film, and an interview with Sluizer conducted earlier this year, in which he claims “I don’t mind disturbing the audience.” No doubt.