Spoorloos (1988) vs. The Vanishing (1993)

If Jean-Luc Godard is correct in his assertion that “at the cinema, we do not think, we are thought,” then perhaps a provisional clause should be added regarding a certain type of Hollywood film: we do not feel, we are felt. This defines the largest difference between George Sluizer’s 1988 The Vanishing and the 1993 Hollywood remake he also directed, with the original’s ghastly thought experiment replaced by a banal melodramatic crime thriller. In the original, Raymond Lemorne’s (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) perfect crime — luring a girl (Saskia, played by Johanna ter Steege) into his car and burying her alive — is a thing of fascination that uncomfortably evokes a modicum of admiration for his diligence in calculating the scheme. Raymond thinks for the viewer as he outlines his experiment, beginning with his ethical transformation from a family man who saves children to impress his own kids to someone who wonders if he can be pushed in the other direction — to kill — and sets out to do it to test his own morality.

In the remake, Raymond (now called Barney, played by Jeff Bridges) is demoted from a sophisticated, educated family man to a creepy villain without depth, his thought experiment losing all coherence and taking the back burner as the film becomes about a heroic pursuit to save Rex (now called Jeff, played by Kiefer Sutherland) from the horror that is Jeff Bridges’ ghoulish face. The Vanishing turns its original moribund chess game into something about the importance of never giving up on a loved one. Such a contrived happy ending must play up the value of the heroine, Jeff’s new girlfriend Rita (Nancy Travis), who ends up saving him despite their emotional break-up over his obsession of his ex-girlfriend’s mysterious disappearance (now named Diane, played by Sandra Bullock). The original film was a nihilistic exploration about how obsession can lead us into places we don’t want to go, or turn us into people we never thought we’d become. The new film is about Standing By Your Guy.

By changing the ending to a happy one, Sluizer radically alters the essence of the original film: Rex’s curiosity is so powerful he is willing to walk literally into his own grave to understand the fate of his Saskia, his adamant need to know overpowered by his need to live. The setup requires the orchestration of his undoing performed by a genius, a checkmate death of sorts. Raymond is not simply an evil man, but a Dr. Mabuse, a Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps most aptly, a Moriarty. Though Rex could not be considered a Sherlock Holmes by any means, he does share Holmes’ admiration for adroitness, and the film delicately rewards the viewer for being able to sympathize with a psychopath–back before it was cool or conventional to make murderers likable and relatable.

By transforming the essence of The Vanishing, the remake must also then change which characters to fully develop, disrupting the previously clean narrative structure that provided so much of the satisfying enigma unwrapping in the original. In the 1988 film, Rex’s new girlfriend Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus) must leave him in order for him to understand that his obsession has taken over his entire life, with her abandonment an austere and final sign that he has lost his marbles. In the remake, the couple does break up (hysterically, over one-too-many scenes), seemingly for good, but Rita is cosmically bound to find and rescue Jeff. As such, her character must be given plenty of screen time as her predictable claptrap of a side-story develops — falling in love with Jeff, experiencing jealousy over his ex, woefully making the decision to leave — all of which unfortunately detracts attention away from the game of cat and mouse being played by Jeff and Barney. In the original, the film rewards Raymond’s perfectionism and morally incomprehensible actions, but they’re for thematically relevant reasons. In the remake, Barney’s intelligence is all-too-easily thwarted by the threat of his daughter’s safety.

The structure of the remake also erodes the pacing of its original. Barney’s plan is virtually identical to Raymond’s, but the film opens with his scheming, Jeff Bridges inhabiting the role of Barney like he’s a vaguely European-accented mad scientist gone berserk for no apparent reason, his creepiness so readily apparent his family is turned off by his whimsies (naturally, it made all the more sense to include a birth certificate bearing a Seattle, Washington stamp in the baby book his family gives him as a present). There is a point in his “training” when Raymond/Barney starts rehearsing his luring act by physically acting it out, including the part when he sits in the car and suffocates his victim with the chloroform-drenched cloth. In the remake, Barney re-enacts this part within minutes of the film starting, his miming act of the suffocation framed in such a way that Bridges’ hairy hands loom up close near the camera and start shaking in a kind of comedic pantomime. It’s so effectively risible that the film kills right then and there any notion that Barney is actually dangerous or infallible.

The original opens with Rex and Saskia, giving ample time to establish their tumultuous chemistry before there is even the slight consideration that they are experiencing the calm before the storm. Saskia’s vivacious raillery with Rex is significant proof of her liveliness and humanity, marking her disappearance all the more disturbing and real, underscoring the necessity of his never-ceasing obsession. By the time the 1993 film gets to Jeff and Diane, so much of Barney’s plan has been laid out that his target becomes painfully obvious. A chronological telling of the story reveals Sluizer’s (or the producers’) condescension towards American viewers: the story is easier to grasp chronologically even if it doesn’t make any sense to tell it that way, as the only flashbacks occur when Barney explicitly describes his memories to Jeff. By contrast, the original’s elegant plot starts with Saskia’s disappearance, goes back in time to show Raymond’s progression as a criminal, ends with his visit to the same service station as Saskia and Rex (a brilliantly clean-cut, ominous shot of her reflection his sunglasses explaining that his visit was at the same time as theirs), fast-forwards to show Raymond living his life comfortably, having gotten away with the murder (or whatever) scot-free, as he walks down a street with his co-worker, who points out a missing-person poster that states she (Saskia) went missing three years ago.

The most baffling part about the remake, is, of course, Sluizer’s own involvement, suggesting that perhaps his fuck-up of a remake was entirely intentional, a manipulative strategy to get viewers to watch his original film. Considering the fact that the remake does not contain any of the smaller clever touches of the original – the Tour de France radio broadcast that also uncannily describes the race between Rex and Raymond, the scene in which they share witticisms about silly French and Dutch names like Mr Sweetmilk, the motif of the golden eggs – nor does it create its own American-style flourishes, Sluizer’s self-destruction is entirely feasible. It’s a smart move too, because it forces savvy moviegoers to acknowledge not only the greatness of the original, but to have something abysmal to contrast it with to rediscover exactly the elements that make it so compellingly refined in the first place.