Sluizer’s first version of the material was met with widespread hosannas, the second with hostility and brickbats.
Yet both of Sluizer’s films depict, in broad strokes, the same tale. The Vanishing is the chilling story of a beautiful young woman who disappears without a trace at a gas station, and the obsessed boyfriend desperate to learn what became of her.In fact, this boyfriend spends three years in search of the missing woman.
Another prominent character in both films is the perpetrator of the crime, a self-professed “sociopath,” at least in the Dutch version. He is a strange bird too: both a perfectionist and, paradoxically, a bit hapless. In the third act of both motion pictures, this madman offers the hero a tantalizing “ chance to find out everything.” To retrace, literally, the steps of the missing woman. But it’s a trap…
Both movie versions of The Vanishing are also based on the 1984 Tim Krabbe novel, The Golden Egg, but the importance of that strange and poetic title is evident only in the superior Dutch film.
The original Spoorloos, a film liberated entirely from American commercial concerns, treads deeply into symbolism, and utilizes film grammar to visually buttress the narrative’s main points. The opening shot of the original, for instance, is of great import. It’s a long, lingering look at a stick bug clinging to a tree. The bug is camouflaged, and is the same brown color as the tree branch. On first, cursory glance, it could be mistaken for being an outcropping of the tree itself.
Another finely-crafted composition early in the Dutch gilm also highlights a sense of ominous foreboding. Rex and Saskia’s car has run out of gas in a long, dark tunnel. Rex leaves Saskia in the pitch-black tunnel and walks for more gas. When he returns, she is not at the car, but at the far lip of the tunnel instead.
In other words, Saskia is in the white (day)light at the end of the tunnel, a figure half-discerned. We understand visually then, that the movie is foreshadowing her approach death. She is literally in the light at the end of the tunnel, a common descriptor for “death” in many circles, and sure enough, at film’s climax, we see this evocative framing recur. Rex travels the same terrifying miles as Saskia and upon his final disposition detects Saskia in the light at the end of the tunnel again. This time, he is joining her in death.
The Dutch version of The Vanishing also charts the similarities and differences between Rex and Lemorne’s personalities. Both men are obsessive to the point of dysfunction, and both are determined to battle — to the death — the hand that they presume Destiny has dealt them.
Similarly, Rex is overtly obsessed with Saskia and her fate. In part, this may be because in the moments before they separated, he promised he would never abandon her. That seems to be the very thing Rex can’t let go of; his vow never to leave Saskia. If he slips into a new life with his girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), he is not a man of his word, and he understands that.
Featuring very little by way of traditional music, the Dutch The Vanishing is icy, precise, gripping and surprising. Rex’s final destination is shocking and grotesque. One facet of the film that remains so fascinating is the fact that Sluizer doesn’t attempt to cloak the identity of Saskia’s abductor from the audience. On the contrary, he exposes Lemorne early — and fully — so that the audience can balance hero against villain; sanity against insanity; empathy against emptiness. The Vanishing also concerns the way people make assumptions about other people, and whether emotion colors those assumptions, for better or worse. Shorn of emotions, Lemorne pursues his ruthless game. Confused by emotions, Rex plunges headlong into his grim destiny, all while believing he is going against the grain.
While crafting his remake of The Vanishing for American audiences, there must have been a point at which director Sluizer was asked — in the style of his dramatis personae — if it was predestined that this movie should tell the exact same story as the original film.
Having told his story once one way, was it necessary to tell it the same way again?Commercial interests would demand, for instance, that the hero survive and the villain face punishment (and even death).
This time around, the characters involved in the action are the boyfriend, Jeff (Sutherland), the abducted girlfriend, Diane (Bullock) and the perverse abductor, Barney (Bridges).
Consider, in weighing the success of the remake, that in the original film, we have no idea how Rex and Lieneke get together. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine the sullen, internally-driven character, Rex, actually initiating a romantic relationship with another woman. It never seems remotely plausible. Here, the remake goes to great lengths to show audience how and why Rita enters Jeff’s life. This is a new and critical element, at least in terms of narrative and theme.
Similarly, the malevolent Barney is driven wholly by ego. Unlike in the original film, this sociopath does not attempt to contact Jeff until Jeff has already stopped searching for Diane (at Rita’s demand, no less). Barney cannot live with the fact that the one person connected with his “act of evil” may let it go and his genius might go unexplained, unacknowledged. Barney feels he is powerful and worthwhile only so long as he can control and dominate Jeff’s mind.”Your obsession is my weapon,” he tells Jeff, “I provided the material; you built the cage.” Without that obsession, Barney is just another loser, and that’s something his ego cannot tolerate.
There’s a sweep of the inevitable in the Dutch The Vanishing. We don’t know how it’s going to end, but we know that Rex is bound for trouble. The American The Vanishing features more overt violence, a more conventional conclusion, and it forsakes that aura of inevitability for an ending that is, well,determinedly not…pre-destined. But there’s no reason why this ending is not valid, given Rita’s tenacious character/ego in the remake. Here, Jeff gets to “know” (discovering the fate of Diane) and he gets to live. In retrospect, that isn’t so horrible, is it?
Especially since we already have one version of the film in which this isn’t the case. If we consider the remake as a film about ego, then it is Rita, not Barney (and certainly not Jeff) who comes out on top. She gets everything she wants: namely a devoted man, (of a higher station, so-to-speak) and one no longer distracted by the ghost of Diane.
In the final analysis, Sluizer has given us two distinct, parallel versions of the same terrifying story. The Dutch film is undeniably a work of art, a masterpiece in every sense, about human nature. The American version is a solid thriller, and probably about as good as the studio system and process of committee filmmaking would permit in 1993. There’s a difference in quality, yes, between versions of The Vanishing, but perhaps it is not one so wide as many would have you believe.