The Vanishing and American Sociopathy

Dreams can be incredibly vivid and imaginative, but sometimes a simple idea can be just as creepy as any complex nightmare. The thought of a single, mundane object or situation becoming sinister or ominous can be a truly disturbing experience.

In 1988, a Dutch thriller created enough of a stir in the U.S. to enable its director, George Sluizer, to get a budget for an Americanized version.

However, the less said about it, the better. The original was a cult classic among both connoisseurs of the killer next door sub-genre, and cineasts enraptured by its intricate narrative structure and riveting lead performances. Both films had the same name – The Vanishing (Spoorloos for those familiar with Dutch-English).

This movie was able to achieve something that very few in this sub-genre have managed to – it left the audience shaken by their implied identification with the events that had taken place. Every killer next door film tries to do this – they all aim to show that “there’s a little killer in all of us”. The Vanishing however, was much more successful in this pursuit, as it so seamlessly led viewers to a realization of their capacity for sociopathy.

In a way, this is reflective of American society today – many of us are regretful or disapproving of our officials’ actions, yet they remain in the same positions they were in eight years ago. We talk about it, shop and generally go about our business – but what are we really doing to bring about change?

Rex and Saskia, a content couple, stop at a rest area in France while on a cycling trip. They take a break, and Saskia goes off to purchase a beer and a soda at the French equivalent of a Quik Mart. However, she never returns. The Vanishing unfolds from the mind-boggling concept of this occurrence.

Rex devotes the remainder of the movie attempting to uncover what happened to her. We learn who was responsible for it nearly straight away, however we remain unaware of what precisely he did. Just like Rex, we are extremely eager to find out.

Raymond, the apparently placid family man and petit bourgeois, is the one behind Saskia’s disappearance. Initially, we see him in his car attempting to craft a false plaster cast for his arm, later standing at the rest stop with his phony sling.

Eventually, the story shifts to Raymond, dressed as a businessman, bottle in hand, arriving at an isolated house. There, a family is seated at a table outside for dinner when one of the daughters discovers spiders populating a shallow drawer; Raymond responds by scolding her, adding that a beautiful scream was heard. The mother is then asked to contribute a scream, which she does after a hesitation, to the approval of Raymond. The next day, a neighbor converses with Raymond and informs him that he hadn’t heard any screams, to which Raymond smiles.

At the country house, Raymond commences his experiments; he takes a substance from a bottle, looks at the time and then puts the material on a handkerchief, which he holds over his face. He then chronicles the length of his loss of consciousness in a notebook, taking note of the dose he has taken.

We come to understand that he is teaching himself the art of predation. He practices his blocking, moves, and conversation with his car; mapping out the details. He knows he can’t take too long, so he makes sure his handkerchief is ready, that the bottle’s stopper won’t open in his pocket, and that he can reach to lock her door in order to overpower her. Glancing at his watch, he realizes he’s running late. We then switch to him picking up his daughter from school and letting her into the car, just as he had planned.

He follows through with his plan, reaching to lock her door and embracing her, however, this hug ends in a loving hair mussing, not incapacitation.

His daughter inquires about the door lock, and he informs her of the incident concerning the girl who fell onto the highway. She expresses shock and asks if the girl is deceased. He admonishes her to consider the circumstances, and she comprehends the situation. As they partake in chocolate eclairs, the conversation comes to a close.

The Unheimlich Found in the Familiar

The idea of something being unheimlich, or uncanny, can be found in even the most familiar of places.

The German term unheimlich is thought to be untranslatable, with our English equivalent being uncanny, which is also not easy to define.

The fact that it cannot be adequately expressed is what makes the uncanny experience so unsettling and/or terrifying.

Freud pointed out that the source of this terror does not come from the unknown but from the strangely familiar. He explored the linguistic origin of this paradox and found that heimlich which initially meant ‘belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly; arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security,’ also had a second definition of ‘concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others’ and ‘secretive, deceitful and malicious.’

In other words, the idea of heimlich had within it the elements that negated the conditions it was supposed to provide. Therefore, unheimlich was a subcategory of heimlich. Or to restate it in a different way: what we thought we could rely on included within itself the opposite of what we were sure of. Inside the usual was that which the regular ignored or pushed aside.

Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu portrays Raymond, a sociopathic character at the heart of the narrative. His mannerisms and politeness is a mask for his neediness and he works hard to demonstrate his capability. Fritz Lang’s M was one of the first movies to focus on the hidden murderousness of the middle class, personified by Peter Lorre’s portrayal of Hans Beckert. Lang made sure to make Lorre’s character distinct from the audience, choosing the actor for his unique look and sound.

Beckert’s presence in society is not inconspicuous; he is often noticed and regarded as abnormal. This is evidenced by the fact that, although he is not the most obvious figure in the bustling city of Berlin, he is still noticed and people find his peculiarities to be disconcerting. In contrast, Raymond from The Vanishing is the complete opposite, blending in with society effortlessly as he goes about his life. This is made evident when he jokes with a friend about having committed the crime, only to be met with laughter.

The events taking place here are more concerning than the typical disclosure of a clandestine life. For Raymond, his capacity for violence is an outcome of what he would consider his protective affection for his family.

His role as a caring family man in fact empowers and permits his brutality. He hatches a trailer con as part of his rest stop plan: he’ll approach solitary women and ask them for assistance attaching his small trailer to the back of his car.

This fails, mortifyingly, when women (and, in one case, a hostile and suspicious husband) question why a capable man requires help with a small trailer. It is his family, however, that assists him in understanding the scam’s deadly weak spot: their loving remembrance of his life on his birthday causes the photo album through which he browses until he discovers a photo of himself with a broken arm. At which point he realizes that he needs to appear more fragile or distressed to ensnare his target.

It appears that his position as a family man gives him power since it shifts him from the unheimlich to the heimlich in the eyes of his potential victims. Towards the conclusion, when we find out what happened to Saskia, and Raymond tells her to get into his car just before he assaults her, she is smart enough to be wary. But what convinces her is his photo of his family. This wasn’t purposely there to deceive her; it’s from the different side of his life, like the kitchen tiles for a proposed renovation tossed in the backseat.

Freud’s essay on the uncanny and the movie The Vanishing provide helpful illustrations of the unsettling quality of sociopaths. In the movie, the truth of Saskia’s fate is revealed at the end—she has been buried alive in Raymond’s yard, beneath the lunch table. This grim revelation overlays the scene of calm domesticity from earlier in the movie, providing a useful schematic for understanding the uncanny.

We recall the contrast between what was visible and the hidden within in the previous scene, with Raymond’s drawer full of spiders. He claimed they were not only useful but adorable, a remarkable word choice illustrating the paradoxes in his mind with regards to being a family man. The scene of a family picnic over a body buried alive reflects Raymond’s internal state perfectly.

All right, but that sounds like a lot of slasher films. The Vanishing is unique though, since the family picnic scene over a person buried alive turns out to be symbolic of Rex’s mind. It is also a representation of how films usually operate, and, in a larger scale, reflects how our nation is currently working.

Alfred Hitchcock sporting a Beret

The poster of a missing person revives Rex’s story after Saskia’s disappearance, and we observe Raymond staring at the poster. Subsequently, Rex stops a vehicle at an intersection to look at another one, as he has been preoccupied with the vanishing of his friend for three years. He softly says to his new companion while they drive, “I sometimes think that she is still alive and happy far away, and I have to decide if I want to let her go on living and never know, or let her die and find out what happened.”

He further smiles and adds, “So, I let her die.” His current partner then jokingly responds, “I don’t want to be part of a threesome,” leaving us to ponder if what Rex said was true. Did we just hear that?

When watching a movie about a sociopath, one expects to be left baffled by their behavior. However, as the movie progresses, the protagonist’s actions start to become equally mysterious. Raymond’s actions are recognized as unpredictable, while Rex’s obsession with finding her is never really understood. He has been searching for three years and has shown no signs of giving up. He claims it is out of love, but it is unclear to whom or what he is paying a tribute to.

Rex seemed to be particularly irritable and cruel in their scenes together prior to her disappearance. When they drove, he was troubled by her application of lipstick and raised her sun visor mirror in a rude manner.

She realised he was running low on fuel and kept silent, seemingly aware that he might be angered by her pointing it out. When they ran out of gas in a tunnel, his anger was further fuelled by her being right. She expressed her fear, yet he responded by leaving her alone in the dark, despite her pleas and cries. His reaction? An uncaring smile.

In the same movie that portrays one of the more unnerving characters in cinematic history, this scene is perhaps the most unsettling of all. What is our protagonist grinning at? What causes him to leave her behind? Just what is going on in his head? Follow me; our current location is too perilous. You’re not sure? Alright. Remain here and succumb, then.

When we take a closer look at the two of them, it becomes clear that Saskia’s presence has Rex in a state of disquietude. He is convinced he is in love with her and holds her in high esteem, yet he behaves as if he’s constrained by their relationship and has difficulty in keeping his hostility at bay.

When looking back, the vision of her in a state of worry and despair, confined in the small vehicle, is reflective of where Raymond had left her in the end. As Rex was departing from her and her screams of alarm grew more intense, it was this that brought a smile to his face. It was almost as if he was thinking: “You’re scared; I find this pleasing.”, “You need me now; I find that delightful.”, and “I am liberated; I like that.”

When they reunite at the highway rest area, she kneels over him and implores him to repeat what she says: That he values her, and that he will never leave her. It’s clear how much he truly cares for her, and he consents to her words.

But after he agrees, her demeanor becomes incredibly somber as if she comprehends that he probably won’t honor his promise. This could be what motivates his devotion after her disappearance. On her face was the knowledge that he would not keep his vow. She didn’t think he would betray her because of what she already understood about him.

In one of their initial interactions, she confided to him that she had experienced her usual nightmare once more: a vision of her being shut inside a golden egg with an inescapable feeling of solitude. She described the loneliness in the dream as unbearable. Her therapist might conjecture that she was signifying more than just her future.

His determination to never give up on finding her, even after realizing she is likely gone, could be an indication that he is searching for an ongoing self-validation. He desired to prove that he did love her, that he did not abandon her, that he is a good person. He is never quitting the search for her, even though he may have not valued her when she was still alive. This is his way to make up for it, by showing that he will never surrender, even though he was willing to do so in the past.

He decides to remain steadfast in his love, while still maintaining a respectful distance. It’s as though he is encased in a golden egg, while she is in her own. After he had left her in the tunnel, he tried to explain his actions by declaring that at that moment was when he truly adored her. At the time when he was departing her.

The phrase “Inside the rock-solid, the bottom drops away” provides a succinct explanation of Rex’s inner turmoil concerning his thoughts about Saskia. It is surprising how often he expresses that he has no desire to regain her affections. Rather, he seeks the knowledge of what happened between them. This perspective is shared by Raymond, who claims to do what he does partly to learn if he is capable of it and what the outcome would be. This is something that many of us can relate to.

A sense of aloofness, yet a captivation that permits the spectator to observe from a secure spot. How different would film be, if we didn’t have this detached interest?

Raymond shared his infatuation with his wife concerning their country house, saying: The process of a thriller begins with a concept in your mind. Once you take the first step, the second follows and you find yourself completely immersed in an intense experience. A succinct description of how this genre works.

Rex doesn’t feel the need to reunite with Saskia, and the movie does a great job of creating that same sense of suspense in us. It’s not a mystery in terms of who did it, but there’s still tension in the story, as we are all wondering what is going to happen between Raymond and Rex and, like Rex, we want to find out what has happened to Saskia. However, our concern for her isn’t the only thing driving this; we are all already fairly certain that she has been killed.

The Vanishing earned the comparison to Hitchcock’s works; Sluizer was dubbed “Hitchcock in a beret” due to their similar styles. Both are thrillers, but what is particularly unnerving is the knowledge the characters have of the crime and themselves. This permits the audience to link what they desire and do to what the movies do for them.

A Companionable Yet Odd Couple

The Vanishing repeatedly tantalizes viewers with information that is on the brink of being unveiled, often by placing Raymond in Rex’s vicinity without his knowledge. Rex’s distress is increased by the manner in which he is being toyed with by the perpetrator; five times, he has been sent postcards that direct him to a certain area close to the area where the abduction took place, but he has no idea who the murderer is.

An instance of this is shown in the movie, where Rex and his new girlfriend are in a cafe. Rex expresses his greatest fear, which is that the murderer will no longer send him cards, and as if in response, the camera begins to track around them.

His girlfriend informs him that the murderer is having fun by seeing how far Rex will go; to which Rex answers, “We’ll see”. We, too, get to see, yet not entirely; between them, in the background, a torso, assumed to be Raymond’s, is seen standing on a balcony with its hands on the railing, observing them. The distance stops us from recognizing who it is. A reverse shot shows Rex and his girlfriend in the distance, their attention on other customers in the cafe, and we figure out that our yearning for knowledge was only partially gratified.

The story’s focus is split between Raymond and Rex, but it is Rex who appears to be more disturbed by the events. From the beginning of the movie, Saskia is gone in fifteen minutes. After an hour, Raymond reveals himself to Rex, and they stay together until the ending, which lasts forty-five minutes. Therefore, Raymond and Rex spend three times as much time together as Saskia and Rex.

The expected dynamic was a triangle involving Raymond, Rex and Saskia. However, Rex and Raymond were together more often and in a much more relaxed manner than Rex and Saskia.

In an unexpected way, The Vanishing turns out to be a buddy film. It is split between two perspectives: not the perpetrator and the victim, unless we agree with Rex’s thought that he is the one who has lost something.

What is it he does not have, and wishes to attain? He verifies this with Raymond, who seems to recognize a kindred spirit in Rex, similar to the way Rex does in him. Freud was intrigued by the concept of the uncanny, due to its ability to depict the breakdown of the boundary between the self and others. For Rex, the unfamiliar is not simply what is inside of the culprit’s head. Throughout the movie, he does many things that require some explanation, but he provides none. (What is his justification for leaving Saskia in the tunnel? He does not provide one, and merely apologizes to her instead.)

He is motivated by an apprehension of Saskia, and that is more difficult for him to confront than his fascination for Raymond. Sigmund Freud believed the uncanny had so much influence because it unveiled knowledge that was already there but concealed.

Rex’s feelings for Saskia are incredibly erratic, ranging from passionate love to unbridled hatred. Thus, it is understandable why he is so intrigued by her stoic and emotionless character.

When questioned about his preoccupation, when asked to describe the murderer, Rex had the demeanor of someone writing a personal advertisement: he suggested that this person is extremely intelligent.

At this point, Rex grinned into the lens. He firmly stated that the individual is a total perfectionist. His confidence and admiration of the suspect were both a bit unsettling. How did he know what this person was like? What information did he possess? He was merely speculating. Or he could have been projecting his own ideas. If he had no evidence, then it was all just his imagination. But the movie made his vision a reality. Each of the characteristics he gave the murderer, with very little information, ended up being true.

Freud would theorize that something in the unconscious is the cause for the uncanny that appears in reality. Saskia had a dream of being stuck in a golden egg and Rex confessed in an interview that he too had the same dream. Raymond, viewing the interview, potentially got the notion of what to do to solve Rex’s issue from hearing about his dream. Thus, the future of the two was derived from the same dream, which was a nightmare for Saskia and an endless interest for Rex. That could be why Saskia sadly requested Rex to never leave her.

A Shield of Contentment

The cocoon of comfort is a protective shield that helps us feel at ease and secure in our environment. It is a place of contentment where we can find solace and relaxation. The cocoon of comfort provides a refuge that allows us to relax and feel safe from the stress of everyday life. It enables us to let go of our worries and concerns, and just enjoy being in the present moment. This peace of mind can help us to think clearly and take thoughtful action in our daily lives.

As has been noted, when we go to the movies, we are in a dreamlike state, sitting in the darkness and letting the images on the screen wash over us in a way that is almost hypnotic.

We feel a sense of enforced passivity, and yet the emotions and themes we witness on the screen are in some way part of our own psyche. It would be a shock to enter the theater expecting a musical and instead find a horror movie, and yet it is a different story when we go to the horror movie and then deny having seen what we did.

Raymond’s first foray into antisocial behavior was leaping from a high balcony as a child. Before he jumped, he told himself “imagine you’re jumping,” granting himself permission to go through with it. Later, Rex hears this story and uses it to convince himself to take a huge risk- take a sleeping pill and allow a sociopath to do to him what they did to someone else- in order to gain the information he wanted. Of course, Rex knew how dangerous this was and Raymond did too. The audience, however, was screaming “don’t do it!” But if Rex had turned away from the offer and the movie ended, how disappointed would we be?

When Raymond and Rex were boys, standing on the balcony, they both began by envisioning themselves in a hypothetical situation. This was a way for them to test the waters before taking a risky action. They convinced themselves that they were simply observing, as if they weren’t accountable for the consequences of their decisions. In reality, they were fully responsible for their actions.

Scott Ritter, an ex-Marine Corps intelligence officer and past UN weapons inspector in Iraq, was recently featured in an interview with Detroit’s Metro Times.

He has been making efforts to warn the public of the current administration’s seeming eagerness to make the same mistakes as before with a strike on Iran. The reporter posed the question as to why there has not been more opposition to the plan, despite what is currently known. To which Ritter answered by saying that…

Only a small percentage of Americans exercise their civic obligations nowadays. The vast majority are content to remain as consumers, not wanting to disrupt the comfortable lifestyle they have become accustomed to or the path they perceive as leading to prosperity. If it doesn’t directly affect their daily lives, they simply don’t have any interest.

Are we aware of the actions being taken in our name? Generally, the answer is yes. Although many of us may not be up to date on the details, a majority of people in the US know that a large number of individuals have died since the war in Iraq began, and that the reasons for the invasion may not have been as urgent as initially believed. We still feel confident we are good people, despite the fact that a number of people have been killed due to the leaders we allow. We are sure of our own morality, regardless of the events taking place.

Raymond finds solace in knowing that he doesn’t have the capacity to commit murder. Despite the fact that he has killed somebody before, Rob Corddry from The Daily Show mentioned a few years back that the world should realize that just because an American might do something, it doesn’t imply they are able to do it.

Raymond’s family is meant to have a pleasant picnic, with him being the loving provider. Still, there are subtle indications that something is amiss. His wife and daughters ask about a hidden life of his that they sense. Unbeknownst to them, their inquiries do not uncover the truth. To Raymond, he is a moral person who did something horrible. This intrigues him, but he does not let it consume him.

The compulsion to remain in denial is incredibly strong. That is why we follow Rex, our protagonist, for a long duration while overlooking his bizarre behavior–which, in this case, can be characterized as brutal animosity directed toward the lady he professes to adore. We would rather not acknowledge such qualities in characters with which we have decided to sympathize, even for a short period.

At the end of the movie, we are finally granted with the insight we had been looking forward to: the details of the incident between Raymond and Saskia. Our complacence allows us to experience various troubling emotions. And if we had not noticed the hints along the way, we definitely don’t miss them now.

Saskia goes into the Quik Mart to use the restroom, and Raymond is there, too. He once again fumbles and our long-awaited resolution is put on hold. He stands still, and Saskia purchases a Frisbee before returning outside; while this is going on, Raymond is overwhelmed by a crowd of children and is unable to reach her before she departs.

He attempts to entice another individual. She appears to be a potential target; she even offers to get into his automobile.

About to climb in himself, he sneezes into his handkerchief after having placed the chloroform on it. After regaining consciousness in the men’s washroom, he can’t help but chuckle at himself: he’s really bad at fulfilling the role of a predator. (This is now at least the fifth woman with whom we’ve seen him fail at this.) He removes his arm sling and puts it in his pocket, as if he’s admitting to himself that perhaps he’s just not suitable to be a psycho killer.

Saskia returns, still seeking her beverages. He does not seem to be particularly attentive to her, nor does he display any predatory behavior when she first asks for change. When she then says she’ll just get change from the cashier, he does not follow up on the issue. His lingering gaze after she departs appears to indicate regret more than anything else.

When she comes back with the change, he is at the corner of the scene, taking a sip out of his coffee cup without looking at her. We then have a medium shot focusing on him staring downwards and sneaking a peek.

Afterwards, we observe her raising both cans and expressing her joy. She compliments him on how well he speaks French; he responds by saying she is being too generous. She inquires him if she is correct in her pronunciation and he affirms it.

As she is not confident in her French, she points to his keychain, the one with the upper case R his daughter gave him for his birthday and says, “Look at me.” (She desires one for Rex, but she could not successfully utter “Look at that!”) It seems like she had been reading about the way in which, in movies, women are the object of the male gaze.

He looks at her while she speaks of her adoration for Rex, and Raymond is slowly beginning to be fond of her as well. He had stated earlier that his aim was to do the most terrible action he could think of, which would mean murdering somebody he really considered to be amazing and undeserving of death. He gazes down, contemplating, and she’s done for. We watch him make his decision.

At a certain point in the film, Johanna ter Steege’s character is at her most pleasant and desirable when we are shown the flashback of her disappearance. The movie is designed in a way that we appreciate her the most right before we never see her again. It is no wonder that this scene was the basis of her European Film Award win.

Her insistence on pushing the topics of the coffee machine, her French, and his keychain and her affection for her boyfriend provokes in us a combination of surprise and distress. We appreciate her likability and yet become exasperated by her charm, which seems like the source of Rex’s anger and his tendency to blame her.

This also results in Raymond’s preying on her and brings to mind Rex’s statement of Why does she have to be so charming? as if it was his fear of her. As a result, when Raymond abducts her, he is not only revulsing us but also acting out our own aggression.

The primary concern that Rex struggles with throughout the movie is not whether Saskia is alright, nor what the murderer did to her; rather, it is more of a query concerning what his own desires and wants are.

Rex does not want to know what happened to Saskia.

His fear of finding out propels him into a situation that serves as a punishment. For him, knowledge is a dangerous thing. Raymond can prove this, being a sociopath who has already committed murder. Raymond tells him, You ‘ll have to turn yourself over to me to find out what you think you want to know. And Rex does. Raymond is offering control of Saskia through her transformation into information and knowledge, as well as a stabilized separation that serves as a kind of proximity. I ‘m not saying you’ll have Saskia back. I’m saying you’ll know what happened to her. Without knowing it, Raymond is about to put Rex in a box on the same level as Saskia’s.

If Rex has been scared by the thought of merging with Saskia in some way, Raymond is here to relieve that fear. He can give Rex the knowledge he wants, and punish him for it at the same time. Raymond can ensure that Rex can remain near Saskia, and always stay apart from her.

At the beginning of the conversation, Saskia shared her dream with Rex, almost as if she was attuned to his worries. She said that in the dream, there were two eggs and Rex was in the other one. She felt that if they collided, it would all be finished.

The extent to which Rex comprehends this explains some of his bizarre actions when he grasps what has happened to him in the end. After he realizes he has been entombed alive, he does not only express shock and terror–he also laughs. Plus, he even more surprisingly, announces his identity. “I’m Rex Hofman!” he yells loudly. Huh, why is that significant now? How many people do you know who, upon being buried alive, would feel the need to declare their name? Rex does. No more of the merging-with-the-woman thing for him. He’s just Rex Hofman.

The two golden eggs symbolize both Rex’s greatest desire and his ultimate disappointment. What Dante portrayed as a difficult situation for lovers in hell–the two together yet unable to be together–is, in Rex’s words, something that is intriguing yet not necessarily awful.

Rex’s mind has invented Saskia’s disappearance, similarly to Raymond’s. Raymond is in a manner of speaking Rex’s representative, as he is ours too: we wish to reject him, but not exclusively.

Rex made a promise to himself to never again turn away from Saskia, though he was painfully aware that he had done so. He desperately wanted to avoid the fact that he had unconsciously asked the murderer to take her place. He had a thought that if only Saskia and everything she stood for could vanish, and his wish was granted by Raymond.

When it comes to thinking about ourselves as a collective, Americans cherish the idea of being benevolent to the rest of the world. This generosity can even be used, by some, as a justification for their intensity and destruction – leading to the well-known expression often attributed to General Westmoreland about having to demolish a Vietnamese village in order to save it. However, for the majority of us, our ignorance is more straightforward. We have willingly been misled by our media to ignore the facts we don’t want to confront. We want the casualties and the evidence of our failure to fulfill our potential as human beings to simply vanish. And poof: they disappear.

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