By Mike Dub
There are a lot of reasons to be worried heading into The Vanishing, Dutchman George Sluizer’s 1988 thriller about the disappearance of a young woman and her boyfriend’s search to find her. It would be remarkably easy for the film to drift into sentimental moping or, worse, a bland man-against-the-system detective story, or even settle for a poignant tearjerker that allows our hero to move on in life with the help of a new love. However, The Vanishing avoids the pitfalls of less impressive movies (including Sluizer’s own dreadful remake five years later in Hollywood) and develops into a haunting tale of obsession and death.
The girl who disappears is Saskia (Johanna ter Steege). During a road trip with her boyfriend, Rex (Gene Bervoets), she goes into a gas station and never comes back. Rex frantically searches the area, asking other customers if they saw her, but gets little help (because she’s only been gone a few hours, it’s too soon to call the police). As the afternoon turns into night, it becomes clear that she is gone and there is nothing he can do about it.
It is here that many films would have felt obligated to take you through the experience of loss. As though we somehow owe it to the character, we would follow Rex over the course of the next few days or weeks, as he deals with the police, puts up “missing” posters, drinks himself into oblivion, and finds either comfort or hostility in the company of Saskia’s family.
But Sluizer and his screenwriter, Tim Krabbé (on whose novel the film is based), have no interest in dragging us through the emotional sludge that is nearly impossible to effectively display on screen. Instead, they introduce us to Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (Raymond Lemorne), a seemingly average chemistry teacher who loves to work on his dream house in the French countryside – the man, it becomes obvious, who is responsible for Saskia’s disappearance.
In a series of flashbacks, Donnadieu is revealed as the embodiment of evil, in all its banality. He develops a method for abduction through careful calculations and trial-and-error experiments – how long does chloroform last, what methods can be used to lure a woman into the car, can the neighbors hear a scream? At times, there is a devilish humor to the failure of his experiments, as when he tries to teach himself an English phrase to ask for help, or when he targets a woman who turns out to be all too willing to engage with him.
As he finalizes his project, the movie jumps again, three years into the future and back to Rex, who has not given up on his search for Saskia. By now, Saskia herself seems beside the point. He knows that she is almost certainly dead, but that’s not what matters anymore. He needs to know what happened to her – as though by knowing her exact fate, he will understand the meaning of death, and perhaps absolve himself of his guilt.
Largely due to the back and forth structure of the narrative, The Vanishing never gets bogged down in emotional manipulation. Rather, it is the haunting study of two men: one who cannot comprehend life without death, and the other who cannot comprehend good without evil. As the characters finally realize their inevitable confrontation, the film deftly cuts between their conversation and the day of the disappearance, creating a riveting final act that leads to a harrowing conclusion.
The Vanishing is a film of explanations, but not answers. Violence arrives by pure chance; guilt plagues the innocent; tragedy strikes decent people. For some, the only way to confront the absurdity of life is to immerse themselves in death. After all, death is inescapable, but it may also be forgiving.