The Vanishing (1988)
Directed by George Sluzier
Starring Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus
By Peter Cameron
George Sluzier’s late ’80s film The Vanishing makes it unnervingly clear that humanizing a monster is more frightening than a mask. Freddy and Jason can hack to bits as many victims as they want, it still won’t scare me as much as the unspeakable acts that humans are capable of.
Not knowing the truth is frightening too. After Saskia Wagter (played with endless charm by Johanna ter Steege) disappears, Rex Hofmann, (played with skillful intensity by Gene Bervoets) obsessively searches for where and why. We get a glimpse of a man with a fake arm cast and a vile, but then he’s gone and so is Saskia. And like Rex, we’re left with nothing but questions.
Knowing the truth can, at times, be even more frightening. After the initial incident, the film masterfully introduces us to the monster. Fritz Lang did it in M, and Hitchcock did it in Shadow of a Doubt. George Sluzier follows in this great tradition and adds another layer: this monster is a dad.
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu is brilliantly cast as Raymond Lemorne, an evil man who could live next door. Sociopaths are all around us. Few of them cross the line like Monsieur Lemorne, but when they do, it’s deeply disturbing. I like to think I would’ve known something was off just by looking at his goatee, but would I have proof to back up my suspicions? He’s a father who has a respectable career, owns two homes, and cares for his kids. People like that don’t normally kill. So, as we gradually learn the truth of Lemorne’s abnormalities, an unsettling pessimism is slowly unearthed: perhaps it’s best to assume the worst in people. It’s certainly safer. Each scene gives us more and more information about what motivates this monstrous man. And because Sluzier and Donnadieu are so talented, it’s fascinating. Sluzier’s characterization isn’t overwrought and Donnadieu’s portrayal isn’t too sentimental. Together, they layer up a complex individual who is identifiable, as well as wholly other. Make no mistake: Lemorne is a monster. But he’s a passable one. One we’ve all probably passed on the street at least once in our lives.
Did Sluzier go too far with his humanization? Is it scarier when a monster’s motivations are unkown? Lemorne admits to Hofman that he is a sociopath. He describes the seminal moment for his killer curiosity. Does that cheapen the experience? When Shakespeare’s Iago is arrested for his ungodly betrayal, his only admittance is “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word.” His motivation remains unclear, and for this he is considered Shakespeare’s most evil creation. I personally don’t see one as more unsettling than the other, because they both reveal the fact that people like this exist. And they always will.
I could go on and on about the brilliance of The Vanishing. The refusal to rack focus certain shots; the ability to combine lens and camera movement to convey Hofman’s mental state. The lighting! The editing! This film has it all! Keep in mind that everything on screen can be categorized as information, and The Vanishing is all about uncovering information. The way Sluzier uses the instruments of cinema to amplify, dampen or obscure information is a testament to this film’s greatness. And because it is a brilliant story with a master-of-cinema’s artistry, George Sluzier’s The Vanishing receives my highest rating: Cinematic Supreme!