Spoorloos (The Vanishing)

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988): Netherlands/France – directed by George Sluizer

Not rated by the MPAA – contains mild language and some disturbing content

Curiosity is one of the most primal human traits.  It drives us as humans to do and think strange things: What would it be like to jump out of an airplane?  How would it feel if I kissed that girl?  What would happen if I steer my car just a few feet to the left while driving down the highway?

Some of these questions arise out of growing up; humans learn by wanting to know.  Some of these questions flit through one’s brain, frighteningly, and disappear into the ether.  Wondering “what if?” and feeling that urge to know something are powerful traits.  Animals exhibit the same characteristics, as anyone who has owned a cat can verify.

The villain in Spoorloos asks himself the same questions.  As a young boy he sat on a balcony railing and wondered what would happen if he jumped.  Everyone wonders this, standing atop a building or at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Almost no one finds out.  The villain, however, is different.

Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and his girlfriend, Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege), are heading through Europe from their native Netherlands.  They are expecting a lovely little vacation together in the woods.  At a rest stop along the way, however, something happens.  Saskia goes into the store for a beer and a Coke and does not return.  Rex waits for her patiently, then his patience turns into panic, then his panic turns into dread.

In a conventional psychological thriller, the rest of the movie would find Rex searching everywhere for his beloved, battling the bad guys along the way.  But Spoorloos is different, not only in story but also in structure.  Almost immediately after the film shows Rex losing Saskia it turns to a new character.  Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) is a university professor, well-educated and intelligent.  He has a loving wife and two daughters.  There is something odd, though, about how he spends his time, especially when it comes to the new house he has purchased in the countryside.  His family is suspicious of an affair, but the truth is somewhat darker.  He takes meticulous notes and meddles with chloroform.  The perfect way to abduct a woman is not easy to uncover.

Then, in another unexpected turn, the film lurches ahead three years.  Rex has a new girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), but their relationship is strained.  Rex cannot give up looking for Saskia: no body has turned up and there have been no leads in the case.  He even appears on television, pleading for information.  He has stopped caring whether she is alive or dead, he just needs to know.

Spoorloos does not play by Hollywood rules.  The villain is revealed early on, and we know exactly how the abduction is committed.  The mystery resides in not knowing Saskia’s fate, though it is easy to suspect.  Like Rex, however, the audience’s desire to know rises as the movie progresses.  We, like Rex, have to know her fate, no matter the consequences.

The ending is perfectly in tone with the rest of the film, and it is horrifying.  The first time watching Spoorloos the ending will disturb you; the second time through the film is still terrifying because you know what happens.  Credible directing and intelligent writing, alongside strong performances by the leads, craft a strong and assured film to surround the mystery and the themes.

I love Spoorloos, not because it is an unconventional film, but because of the way it explores the matter of curiosity.  Curiosity is one of the most powerful, terrifying, and exciting human traits, and never have I seen it presented like it is in Spoorloos.  The film haunted me like almost no other movie after I had seen it once.  The second viewing was also satisfying and enjoyable, but in a different and unexpected way.  Spoorloos is a very unique movie and one that will forever stick with me.

3 thoughts on “Spoorloos (The Vanishing)

  1. Pingback: This Too Is Meaningless » Blog Archive » Best Movies of the Decade, Part 1: Honorable Mention

  2. PhilZ

    Margaret and I watched this movie some time ago; I’m sure it was because one of us read this review.

    I just wanted to weigh in and say that the experience was very unique. The way the movie is crafted truly is masterful and completely different than what you would expect from a modern American film, as you pointed out. But what will make this movie forever stick in my mind is the final scene. I have never had such a terrifying experience while watching a movie before. Truly powerful.

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