Shortly before the main event in George Sluizer’s 1988 suspense classic The Vanishing, there’s a smaller vanishing, which is just as important to understanding what the movie is up to—both as a genre exercise and as a study of human nature. The Vanishing opens with a young Dutch couple named Rex (played by Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) vacationing in France, bantering playfully about her poor French and his stubborn refusal to stop for gas. Then their car sputters to a stop in the middle of a long mountain tunnel, and Rex defensively storms off to get help, leaving a panicked, shrieking Saskia all alone. As he walks out away, Rex smirks a little. His abandonment of Saskia is partly responsible for setting the movie’s main plot in motion, but even more than that, it’s a telling example of how people who love each other can still behave absolutely awfully.
Later that same day, after Rex and Saskia reconcile, she disappears. They stop at a gas station, she runs in to buy some cold drinks for the road, and she doesn’t come back. It slowly dawns on Rex that something terrible may have happened, though he doesn’t know for sure whether an angry Saskia is teaching him a lesson, or if something more sinister is afoot. Sluizer doesn’t put the audience in Rex’s shoes—at least not entirely. Well before Saskia skips off to the vending machines, Sluizer shows a strange man hovering around the station, watching her. And right when Rex’s anxiety reaches a peak, The Vanishing switches perspectives, flashing back to that man, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), and showing how he meticulously planned Saskia’s abduction.
The Vanishing was widely compared to Alfred Hitchcock when it played around the world back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Sluizer’s not a stylist on Hitchcock’s level. The movie has some striking visual motifs, most notably in the recurring images of two circular objects—two headlights, two coins, two aluminum cans—to show how Rex’s and Saskia’s fates are linked. But The Vanishing’s real strengths are its performances and structure, with the latter taken almost as-is from The Vanishing’s source material, Tim Krabbé’s novel The Golden Egg. The film is like a drawing-room mystery where the crime happens in the first 10 minutes, the detective can’t find any clues, and the rest of the story is filled up by the criminal explaining how he did it.
That explanation is so darkly compelling—and ultimately so chilling—that The Vanishing has earned its reputation as one of the scariest non-horror movies ever made. Donnadieu plays Raymond as a brilliant, mild-mannered man, with a compulsion since childhood to test himself. After the flashback to Raymond’s abduction-planning—a flashback that ends with him seeing Saskia as the gas station—The Vanishing jumps ahead three years, following Rex again for a while as his campaign to find out what happened to Saskia drives him to emotional and financial ruin. Then Raymond shows up on Rex’s doorstep, offering to reveal Saskia’s fate, but only if Rex is willing to go for a drive and hear the whole complicated tale of how an intensely analytical teacher, husband, and father decided to commit an unspeakable act just to prove to himself that he could.
According to Sluizer, Stanley Kubrick was such a fan of The Vanishing that he watched it over and over, and would call Sluizer up occasionally to talk about his favorite scenes. Yet The Vanishing wound up being something of a one-off in Sluizer’s career: a near-masterpiece that he couldn’t replicate. And that’s meant literally. Sluizer tried to break through in Hollywood with an English-language Vanishing remake with a laughable new ending, which betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the original film so special. The Vanishing toys with the audience’s need to know more, warning them every so often that when all the pieces of this puzzle are put together, the picture isn’t going to be pretty. Both the protagonist and the viewer have to be punished for their curiosity, or the movie is meaningless.
That’s because The Vanishing isn’t just a cleverly scrambled mystery, and isn’t just a detailed breakdown of how an amateur commits a crime. It’s also about ordinary human selfishness. Raymond is so laser-focused on his plan to kidnap a woman that he even practices the steps while he’s picking up his daughter from school; and when The Vanishing finally arrives at the extended scene where Raymond meets and abducts Saskia, it’s heartbreaking to see how vibrant she is, and how little Raymond cares. But Rex is just as callous in his way, wrecking everything in his life in order to satisfy his curiosity. And The Vanishing’s viewers are cruel too, wanting Rex to suffer if it means this story will have an ending.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of The Vanishing only contains two bonus features, both of which are fairly brief interviews—one with Sluizer and one with ter Steege, both recorded this year. Since Sluizer died recently, his interview is especially valuable, capturing what amounts to some of his final thoughts on his best-known film. He talks about how he had a falling-out with Krabbé over the script rewrites, and how he only thought of The Vanishing as a suspense film while he was shooting it, not while he was writing. During the writing, he thought about himself, and how he’d act in each of the situations in the movie, if he were these characters. That’s how he made The Vanishing so frighteningly real.