This past weekend, The Independent Film Channel (IFC) presented a program called "The Cult of Criterion", two evenings filled with cult-status movies from Criterion, the preeminent home video source for rare, high-quality films from around the world. "The Cult of Criterion" line-up included the following films: "Kwaidan" (1964), directed by Masaki Kobayashi; "Häxan" (1922), directed by Benjamin Christensen; "Sisters" (1973), directed by Brian De Palma; "The Element of Crime" (1984), directed by Lars von Trier; "The Vanishing" (1988), directed by George Sluizer; and "Witchcraft Through the Ages", a re-edit of "Häxan" that is included on the "Häxan" DVD.
George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" made such an impression on American critics and the filmmaking community that Hollywood invited the director to helm a remake of the film that made him an international name. Like the Swedish/Norwegian production of "Insomnia" that spawned a Hollywood remake, "The Vanishing" also became an American film with recognizable stars and a comfortable budget. However, unlike the American "Insomnia", which preserved the dark feel of the European original, the American version of "The Vanishing" wanted to give audiences a happy ending. Although I have not seen the remake--let me reiterate that it was directed by Sluizer himself--judging from the harsh critiques that I have read, I won't be seeing it anytime soon.
Based on the novel "The Golden Egg" by Tim Krabbé (who co-wrote the screenplay with Sluizer), "The Vanishing" begins with a Dutch couple driving on French highways for a cycling vacation. They're in France during the annual Tour de France, so there are many tourists in the northern part of the country waiting to witness the final stages of the cycling race. Things get off to a rocky start when the car runs out of gas in a long, dark tunnel, and Rex (Gene Bervoets) has to walk long distances to get a plastic tub of gasoline in order to get the car moving again. Angry about being left alone in the dark, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) mentions that they should go back to Amsterdam instead of staying in France.
Like all young couples, the two kiss and make nice quickly, and soon they're taking a breather at a rest stop. Saskia goes inside the convenience store to buy some cold drinks, but she never returns to the car. Frantically, Rex runs around the rest park, showing people a photo of his girlfriend. Everyone was too busy listening to a live radio broadcast of the Tour de France to notice Saskia.
Thus begins Rex's 3-year search for his abducted girlfriend. Actually, the film jumps ahead 3 years, since Rex has had no luck at all in obtaining new clues concerning Saskia's whereabouts. 3 years later, he has a new girlfriend. Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus) tries to help Rex find Saskia, but his obsession makes him unreceptive to her aid.
The film devotes as much time to the abductor's reaction to Rex's search as to Rex. Early in the movie, we are already told that Raymond, a college professor, is the one who whisked Saskia away from the world on that fateful day at the rest station. As a family man, he can honestly tell his wife and his daughters that he has never had a mistress. In fact, he doesn't seem to be bothered at all by the crime that he committed. Since Rex won't give up on finding Saskia, Raymond begins to play a cat-and-mouse game with the avenging boyfriend.
"The Vanishing" is a disturbing study of criminal pathology and the concept of "the übermensch" (Nietzsche's "super-man", or a man who has evolved beyond mundane categorizations through moral and ethical prisms). It features an ending that will shock some but will make inevitable sense if you think about it. Watching the film carefully, you'll notice clues about the ending in the dialogue spoken by the actors and in the cool, calculating mind of the abductor.
(The title of the source novel refers to a nightmare that plagues Saskia. In her sleep, she thinks that she is trapped in a "golden egg", adrift and alone in space. The title of the book provides yet another hint of the film's ending.)
Perhaps due to the way European filmmakers shoot their films, the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks much darker than I would like. If the Criterion people were simply preserving the director's artistic intent, then I can't really say much except that I like my movies to be brighter than what is shown with "The Vanishing". (That's why I can never understand David Fincher's obsession with creating blacker-than-black designs, which hurt many people's eyes after 2 hours of visual strain.) Aside from the darkness of the transfer, I noticed few things wrong with the print. There are a few scratches here and there, but they do not detract from the experience.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 French and Dutch audio track is a modern mono creation. Therefore, it features a dynamic range that is much better-sounding than the mono tracks of the black-and-white era. Nothing sounds harsh, and dialogue is always clear. There's an obvious lack of low-end response, but the track feels very natural for the most part.
Optional English subtitles support the audio.
Since some of the principal filmmakers participated in the creation of the Criterion DVD, I'm guessing that they declined to provide the company with materials other than a theatrical trailer. Like all other Criterion DVDs, this one features color bars to help viewers to calibrate monitors to proper viewing levels.
A glossy fold-out provides chapter listings, an essay about the film, film credits, and DVD credits.
After a frustratingly slow start, "The Vanishing" becomes oppressively creepy as Rex agrees to go along with Raymond's guided tour of what happened to Saskia. I would've preferred a version of the film that clocked in at 90 minutes rather than 106. However, most directors' cuts of movies are longer rather than shorter than their theatrical versions (the exception being "Picnic at Hanging Rock", with director Peter Weir removing footage for the Criterion DVD). Surprisingly, despite the fact that the screenplay openly reveals many details of Saskia's abduction, the more that the audience knows, the more bewildering the mystery becomes. Opening one door leads to many more doors, and "The Vanishing" actually becomes a philosophical treatise during its last half-hour. This is the kind of thriller that treats its viewers as Ph.D. candidates, a welcome change of pace from the bombastic nonsense of "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever".
Reviews of "Häxan", "Sisters", and "The Element of Crime" are available here at DVD Town.