George Sluizer's The Vanishing - the original one, that is, rather than the much inferior Hollywood remake by the same director - is, in generic terms, an interesting hybrid. It is at once an intensely suspenseful thriller, reliant on the usual stock of devices to put the viewer through a harrowing hour and a half, and something akin to an art-house movie, in its readiness to broach philosophical ideas and employ sustained symbolism.
The passage selected here for particular consideration illustrates both of these dimensions to the film and bears testimony to Sluizer's remarkable skilfulness in blending apparently incompatible ingredients into a coherent whole. Since no scene can be expected to exemplify all the ways in which the film from which it is excerpted conforms to, and deviates from, a generic model, however, it will be useful to begin with a broader consideration of The Vanishing's status as a thriller with a difference.
Among its conventional features, three in particular are especially striking. First, it follows the example of Hitchcock by generating suspense through the repeated delay of an action that we know is going to happen. From the outset we strongly suspect that Saskia Wachtel is going to vanish - the very title hints as much - but three or four times Sluizer tricks us into imagining that the moment of her disappearance has arrived before it actually does.
When Rex returns with a jerry-can of petrol to the tunnel where their car has stalled and finds the vehicle empty, for example, we jump to the conclusion that she has absconded or been abducted, only to discover a moment later, when Rex drives out of the tunnel, that she is there waiting for him. A second sense in which the film exploits the familiar conventions of the thriller genre is that it shows the killer spying on his victim, and even positions the viewer as a who participates vicariously in that malign surveillance.
Indeed, insofar as the scene at the service station is presented twice, first from Rex's perspective and then from Raymond's, the istic element in the film becomes progressively greater the longer it goes on. Initially, we only get to see Raymond once or twice, skulking in a doorway or loitering by a vending machine, but when the event is re-run in flashback we are guided into solidarity with him as he fixes Saskia in his merciless sights.
A further kinship between The Vanishing and conventional thrillers relates, not so much to its exploitation of conventional techniques of generating suspense, as to its satisfaction of a necessary pre-condition for the maximal effectiveness of those techniques. In the terms used by Susan Hayward in her Cinema Studies, a thriller must have about it "an aura of the possible"; it must concern ordinary people with whom the viewer can readily identify, so that the threat posed to their safety is experienced as one which could easily be transferred to ours.
Thus in the opening scenes of The Vanishing Sluizer goes out of his way to make Rex and Saskia appear like an ordinary couple. The pair's mild tiff over her shirking of driving duties, their more serious, holiday-threatening row in the aftermath of the incident in the tunnel, and the touching rituals by means of which they clinch their reconciliation all help to make us feel their vulnerability as our own. There are other elements in the film which also merit consideration under the heading of conventional features of the thriller, but these will come out in our reading of the chosen extract.
In the meantime mention needs to be made of the other "artier" side to the film. Whereas the traditional thriller tends to trace the evil deeds of its villain to psychosis or sexual deviance (see Psycho etc. ), Sluizer flirts with these possibilities only to dismiss them in favour of a philosophical motivation. In the car with Rex, for example, Raymond is insulted when he is asked whether he raped Saskia, and proceeds to explain how he was rather intent, in the manner of a Gidean existentialist, on doing the worst thing he could possibly think of in order to demonstrate his freedom from constraint by conventional morality.
As well as moving beyond the usual parameters of the thriller by introducing high-flown philosophical notions, The Vanishing also pushes the boundaries by going in for sustained and elaborate symbolism. Beginning with Saskia's dream of floating through space in a golden egg from which she will never be released until it collides with a second such egg, it subsequently re-visits the image in a series of inventive visual variations.
The lights of the lorry in the tunnel, the light at the end of the tunnel the coins dug up at the service station, and the guttering flame of Rex's lighter in the coffin are all converted by clever filming into eggs evocative of those in Saskia's dream. Finally the film deviates from the usual format of the thriller in terms of the conduct of its narrative. If the purpose of a thriller is to induce in the viewer a sense of ever-increasing apprehension , the easiest way to do this is to proceed chronologically, keeping the audience in the dark as to what is going to happen next.
Sluizer, however, takes the more difficult option of abandoning chronological sequence in favour of a narrative that jumps back and forth along the time-line. First, we see Rex and Saskia on holiday and move forward with them towards the moment of her abduction; next we go back in time to Raymond's planning of the deed and cover the same period from his perspective; then we jump forward three years to Rex's ongoing search for Saskia, and finally in the film's closing passage the journey of Rex and Raymond from Holland to France is punctuated by periodic flash-backs to Raymond's planning and execution of his crime.
These temporal switches are all neatly managed, with little touches like commentary on the Tour de France serving to give us our bearings, and, far from sacrificing tension, they somehow contrive to intensify it. The excerpt I have chosen to consider runs from the moment of Rex's arrival at the service station from which Saskia was taken three years earlier to the film's dramatic conclusion.
Like most thrillers, this one has to reward its viewers for all the psychological tortures they have suffered with a final revelation of the truth it has for so long withheld, but, as we shall see, this is by no means the only way in which typical generic features surface in the passage. The excerpt begins with a somewhat untypically theatrical scene. Rex, having been invited by Raymond to drink a cup of drugged coffee and thereby earn the right to discover Saskia's fate by sharing it, runs around in the pouring rain to an accompaniment of frenetic, jazzy music.
A mid-range shot cleverly includes, in the foreground, the bonnet of the car with the coffee cup on it - an emblem of the choice confronting Rex - and, further back, the crazed cavorting figure of the one who must make the choice. In the first of several surprises sprung in the course of the excerpt, Rex first wanders over to a tree and, scrabbling around at its base, unearths the coins which he and Saskia had previously buried, and then rushes to down the drink.
It is as if the discovery of an object redolent of his lost lover has suddenly caused him to set aside all fears and risk his own life for the sake of finding out what has become of her. Afterwards, though, as he explains to Raymond his reasons for drinking the sleeping draft, he replicates a speech delivered by Raymond earlier. Just as Raymond jumped from the balcony as a boy in order to escape from a foregone conclusion, so Rex drinks in a spirit of contradiction.
What is particularly noticeable here, in terms of genre, is the way in which Sluizer uses the philosophical aspect of the film in order to deliver the surprising plot twist demanded by the conventions of the thriller. Infected by Raymond's bizarre brand of existentialism, he confounds common sense and acts in a manner which allows us to discover Saskia's fate. We probably realize by now that Rex is going to die (since we have very nearly been told that Saskia is dead) but still, in keeping with the conventions of the thriller, Sluizer has one more card to play.
We don't yet know just how Rex will perish and the revelation comes as a profound shock. The screen cuts to black, so that we are literally kept in the dark for a moment, but we can hear a scraping noise. We then cut to Raymond filling in a grave and realize that Rex is being buried alive. Inside the coffin Rex fumbles for his lighter and, igniting it, learns with horror how Saskia died. If this provision of a final twist in the tale lives up to one of the demands of the thriller, so the particular kind of death suffered by Rex helps the film to conform to another.
Ideally, a thriller, in supplying a conclusion which takes us by surprise, should simultaneously make us feel that that conclusion is perfectly fitting (if not guessable on the basis of the data previously supplied), and this is just what happens here. As we watch the flame die and hear Rex cry out in anguish, we remember how previously, when stopped by a traffic-cop, Raymond produced a certificate of exemption on the grounds of claustrophobia.
What else, we realize, would a claustrophobe keen to commit the worst of all possible crimes do but bury someone alive? Only one scene remains and this involves a further jump forward in time. In one continuous panning shot the camera first focuses on a cricket in the grass, the very scene with which we began, and then moves slowly round to take in a pensive Raymond sitting outside and eventually his car.
Circling around the car in a manner which re-traces the steps of Raymond when he perpetrated the crime, the camera finally comes to rest on a newspaper bearing the headline "A second disappearance, first Saskia Wachtel and now Rex Hoffman". The story is accompanied by two oval pictures of "the disappeared" which suddenly zoom out of the page to be surrounded by blackness. The film thus ends with an image of two eggs floating through the cosmic void, re-capitulating and summing up all the other such images which have run through the piece.