In 1993 the promotional material accompanying the video release of George Sluizer’s ponderous American remake of his own remarkable Dutch thriller The Vanishing (1988), included this reassuring message to the masses: "While the remake is essentially the same film, screenwriter Todd Graff has added new elements, deepened some aspects of the story and most importantly, altered the ending for American audiences".
In other words this Hollywood remake, like so many Hollywood remakes, would eschew the very qualities that made the original so absorbing in the first place. The believable characters, the almost clinical – and resolutely unsentimental – depiction of a terrible crime and, of course, the infamous shock ending, would all be shunned in favor of stock characterizations, conventional plot mechanics, and a dreadful "upbeat" conclusion. Apparently the producers of the remake decided that American audiences were simply not prepared to lay down their hard-earned dollars on a film which dared to suggest that sometimes, in the real world, evil wins out.
That the director of The Vanishing would even consider reinventing such an audacious, one-of-a-kind picture in the first place is mystifying. That the remake fails to cast the hypnotic psychological spell of the earlier film is not. At any rate, do yourself a favor and skip the American version and rent, instead, Sluizer’s Dutch original, a chilling dissection of a modern psychopath and two of his victims.
Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna Ter Stegge) embark on a cycling holiday in southern France. When their car stalls in the middle of a highway tunnel, Rex – against Saskia’s heated protests – abandons her to hike back to the nearest town for gas. When Rex returns, Saskia is waiting, frightened if unharmed. In an evocative long shot, Sluizer frames Ter Stegge in a dazzling cloud of light at the end of the tunnel, a symbol of purity and innocence soon to be lost.
Back on the road,Saskia tells Rex the dream of the golden egg, the title of the Tim Krabbe novel the screenplay (also penned by Krabbe) is based on. In the dream Saskia is floating through space, trapped in a golden egg. Later another egg appears, two wayward souls wandering, for eternity, through the outer dark. The loneliness, Saskia tells Rex, is unbearable.
Then they stop for fuel and refreshments, and Saskia suddenly vanishes, and Rex’s world, his well-ordered world, is shattered beyond repair. Now Rex roams aimlessly through life, rudderless, unanchored, adrift. He obsesses over Saskia’s disappearance and finds meaning only in his relentless search for the missing woman, a search the movie rejoins three years later. The camera pans across a poster of Saskia – one of many such posters – pinned to a tree. Rex and his current girlfriend (Gwen Eckhaus) revisit, again and again, the countryside surrounding the scene of the abduction. And in a national television interview Rex begs the kidnapper to come forward. He will do anything, he tells the kidnapper, just to find out, once and for all, what happened. The loneliness is unbearable.
After Saskia’s disappearance, The Vanishing abandons formal chronology to tell its story back and forth through time. It also narrates that story from the perspective of both Rex and the kidnapper Raymond Lemorne (played, to steely perfection, by Bernhard Donnadieu). By switching, mid-film, to the mundane, everyday life of the kidnapper, Sluizer manipulates – the way Hitchcock often manipulated – the audience’s emotions. Now we hesitantly witness, firsthand, the banality of evil. Over breakfast Lemorne assures his wife (Bernadette Le Soche) that he is not having an affair, and that he loves only her. At a birthday party Donnadieu’s two daughters (Tonia Latarjet and Lucille Glen) affectionately present their father with gifts. Then Lemorne goes outside to sit on a bench and calmly calculate how many minutes of unconsciousness a bottle of formaldehyde will provide.
Few thrillers of the last two decades have mined such rich psychological terrain. Rex’s dogged pursuit of Saskia’s kidnapper is, in particular, effectively rendered, and Bervoets’ handsome, haunted features embody the guilt, and the grief, of the survivor. When Rex falls asleep on the lawn of a home he and Saskia once visited, he too dreams of the golden egg, and wakes in delirium. It’s a startling passage – Bervoets’ dark inner demons juxtaposed against the radiant afternoon light sweeping across the hillside – that encapsulates Rex’s tormented journey.
And just as startling is Sluizer’s sober, detailed account of the crime itself. In a similar vein to In Cold Blood (1967), the audience re-visits the scene of the crime – re-lives the horror – near the end of the picture. Once again Rex and Saskia stop for refreshments. Once again Saskia enters the station. And once again she turns to the stranger standing next to her at the coffee machine to ask for correct change.
The failure of the American remake of The Vanishing does not diminish Sluizer and Krabbe’s achievement. And the lure of Hollywood to a filmmaker like Sluizer is understandable. But as this summer’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate once again attests, reinventing a classic movie is, in almost every circumstance, folly. Lightning rarely strikes twice. In hindsight Sluizer, like Raymond Lemorne’s unfortunate victims, should have stayed home.