Great Films: Spoorloos [The Vanishing] (Georges Sluizer, 1988, Netherlands / France)

Genre cinema relies on certain conventions, tacitly understood rules of engagement between director and viewer which allow feelings such as humour, warmth, dread, mystery, love and hate to be easily communicated by association rather than through explicit spelling-out. Films with somewhat simpler aims will play by these conventions, giving us standard thrillers, comedies, rom-coms, horror pictures, etc etc. But every so often a director will bravely try not only to break these hidden rules, but to play with audience’s preconceptions about the film that they are watching. In delivering the unexpected, a filmmaker can not only expose these prejudices that the filmgoer brings to the cinema, but can also deeply unsettle the viewer, so used to the standard fare.

There is no greater example of this than with Georges Sluizer’s Spoorloos, in English referred to as The Vanishing, though this was also the title given to his subsequent American remake made five years later. The premise is rather simple – a Dutch couple, Saskia and Rex, while holidaying in France stop at a petrol station, where Saskia subsequently goes missing. The film cuts to Rex three years later, with a new girlfriend but still wanting to know what happened on that fateful day.

Another film would give us all of this information, and then show Rex’s descent into madness as he is tormented by a faceless kidnapper leaving a trail of clues in order to lead him to his hidden lair. But Spoorloos plays a different game; in a series of extended flashbacks, the film introduces a third character, the middle-class family man Raymond, and carefully follows his clinical and meticulous planning to capture a stranger. The conventional thriller deliberately skims this kind of information, so why does Sluizer choose to devote so much of the film to the miniscule detail of his villain?

The answer is at least partially, as mentioned above, to wrong-foot the viewer. There is something akin to Orson Welles’ late appearance in The Third Man about the treatment of thriller villains, an almost reverential respect for the privacy of their motives that should really be ill afforded to such criminals. In showing the mundanity of Raymond’s existence – his attempts at calculating how far he could drive with a chloroformed victim, his botched attempts at snaring other would-be victims – the director grants no such star-status to his villain. His meticulous planning, rather than coming from the master-mind of a cartoonlike Bond villain, actually seems pretty geeky – the product of a true madman rather than a comic-book one. In humanising evil, it becomes profoundly more disturbing.

Of a rather lesser note of interest is the early banana skin we are left to fall over; the couple encounter car difficulties in a tunnel, and Rex wanders off leaving a petrified Saskia alone in the dark. The expectation is of course that when he returns, she will have performed the ‘vanishing’ of the title, though she is indeed still in the car on his arrival. It reminds me of the early scene in Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] where the protagonist Antonio leaves his bicycle outside of a house for a few minutes while he investigates inside; when he returns for it, there is of course the expectation that it will have been stolen, but this is only because of the knowledge of the film’s title – the bicycle is still propped up where he left it.

What is fascinating about Spoorloos is that despite its reputation as one of the most horrifying, gripping and quite simply disturbing films ever made – indeed the absolutely terrifying ending is regularly voted one of the scariest film moments ever – it was decided that there was nothing materially in the film to find it deserving of anything greater than a 12 rating in the UK on its release (later upgraded on its VHS release to a 15 rating, for ‘strong psychological terror’). This, for me, shows its absolute brilliance – and in an age now where CGI gore is thrown around the screen with little effect, the film’s simple power and utter terror is even more effective.

**EDIT** It’s probably best to mention, for those who haven’t seen it, just how terrible Sluizer’s remake is, dismantling all of the apparatus that made the original so utterly brilliant. What a shame. For all of the stick that Michael Haneke is getting for doing an exact shot-for-shot remake of his notorious Funny Games, perhaps it could serve as reminder that tinkering is not always such a good thing….

Another point of note: the French title of the film was cleverly L’Homme Qui Voulait Savoir (The Man Who Wanted to Know) – a suprisingly insightful alternate title, referring not only to Rex but Raymond.

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