A note on the method: one of the key questions we must ask when analyzing any work of art is whether the artist expresses a pessimistic or optimistic point of view. It’s typically “either – or”, because the mixture of both is practically never even, and tends toward either optimism or pessimism (most commonly the latter). Determining a pessimistic or optimistic point of view of a film is often easy, because in most works the climax and resolution leave no place for doubt: it’s either a happy ending, or a “downer”. For example, Ingmar Bergman’s “In the Presence of the Clown” (1997) is unmistakably one of the most pessimistic films even for this generally ruthless director: in the dilemma of “sinking” versus “rising” he chose “sinking” in the climax. In a somewhat less obvious case, “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), also by Bergman, a grain of hope remains at the end, but knowing the previous history of Johann and Marianne, we can be sure they will never truly reunite. On the other hand, “Fanny and Alexander” (1983) and “The Magic Flute” (1975) are optimistic stories, despite their inevitably ironic endings.
To be able to define a film as optimistic or pessimistic, we should have clear understanding of its main theme. “Some people are lucky to get a fair treatment, but ultimately, the justice doesn’t exist”. Theme: justice; attitude: pessimism. “People do suffer unfairly sometimes, but in the long run justice always triumphs, even if not completely”. Theme: justice; attitude: optimism. “God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t give a damn about His people”. Theme: religion; attitude: pessimism. “God is perfect, omniscient and omnipresent, and His will determines everything that happens to us, even if we don’t understand Him”. Theme: religion; attitude: optimism.
Having defined the theme and the outlook, we must determine whether the artist gives artistically compelling, competent proof of his pessimistic or optimistic position. And finally, we must choose whether we agree or disagree with the offered point of view, and why.
Analyzing “Spoorloos” (literally, “Traceless”, known in US as “The Vanishing” and in France as “L’homme qui voulait savoir”) we have to conclude that even though the film has a deceptively optimistic climactic point (Rex has a vision of reuniting with Saskia) – it ends with a perfectly pessimistic resolution: Rex and Saskia are dead, their photos are apart from one another on the newspaper page, their murderer enjoys impunity, and even his deep existential angst emotionally underlines the bleak mood of the ending.
The film deals with the theme of communication, and asserts pessimistically that human contact is impossible despite any effort. Did the director George Sluizer prove the idea convincingly? Do we agree with him? I won’t retell “Spoorloos” in this article: I assume the reader has seen it. Instead, I’ll sketch a list of themes treated in the film, and scenes that illustrate those themes.
Blending in with nature: the opening shot of the stick insect attached to a tree, followed by a panorama across the blooming meadow. Rex and Saskia’s choice to explore the countryside. The shot of the praying mantis in the grass at the end of the film. The bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s graves. Animals on a torn poster next to the poster of the vanished Saskia. This theme must be interpreted in two ways: as an expression of a desire to achieve a state of harmony with nature, and as a visual metaphor of mimicry. The image of the praying mantis in particular offers a number of relevant allusions: the insect makes itself near-invisible in the environment, lying in wait, and then attacks its prey suddenly, with terrific speed. It’s a cannibal insect, known for devouring its mates during copulation. It’s clear that the praying mantis metaphor points at Raymond, the film’s sociopathic antagonist. However, the protagonist, Rex, initially displays a lot of similar qualities: in the beginning of the film, having just abandoned Saskia in a car stranded in a middle of a dark tunnel where she may be killed by a passing truck, Rex, in his own words, feels more in love with her than ever before.
Survival: expressed in the film metaphorically through the recurrent motive of the Tour de France bicycle race. The all-permeating race for survival is one of the major factors contributing to the impossibility of true contact in the material world. As long as we’re preoccupied with having to survive, we are competitors in the race to every other survivor, and therefore cannot truly unite with them. Rex’s ability to overcome his urge to survive is the key turning point in his character development arch.
Superficiality of communication: one of the film’s notable features is the nonsense “small talk” type of dialogue illustrating lack of contact between people. It’s introduced in the opening scene of the film, when Rex and Saskia rant about animals, insects and trees (all things nature). Later, Rex and Raymond compare the nonsensical Dutch and French last names. Ironically, Rex appears to have much better rapport with the murderer of his wife, than he had with her. Raymond also calls out Rex’s superficiality by labeling him as an “amateur cyclist”. Raymond’s behavior appears to be anything but superficial: his meticulous preparation to a murder is a masterpiece of organizing. However, Raymond’s relationship with his wife and daughters is beyond superficial: being a sociopath, Raymond lacks empathy in any form, and his contact with members of his family is limited to using and manipulating them. In one memorable bit of dialogue, Raymond directly tells his wife about his obsession with committing an act of ultimate evil – but he omits the specifics, and what he says may be attributed to his obsession with their country house, proving that even when the truth is told, the listener is likely to interpret it from a subjective point of view. The importance of this episode is underlined with subtle, eerie music. In a more dramatic way, Raymond’s interaction with Rex may be interpreted as a highly perverted, doomed attempt at establishing a contact.
Isolation: Saskia’s recurrent nightmare about floating through space trapped in a golden egg. (There’s another golden egg drifting nearby, and should the two eggs collide, it will all be over.) Rex having the same dream. Rex and Saskia being trapped in a car inside the dark tunnel. Saskia’s terror of abandonment. Of course, the climactic event of the film is the ultimate metaphor for the state of isolation. Most importantly, the isolated photos of Rex and Saskia in the newspaper. The physical isolation in “Spoorloos” is horrifying, but the psychological alienation described in the film is probably even more profoundly disturbing, and I do not refer here only to near-autistic mental isolation of Raymond preparing for the murder. The isolation of Rex throughout the film is subtler, but no less complete. After Saskia has vanished, Rex is naturally terrified for her, but that doesn’t prevent him from being a lot more preoccupied, even if only momentarily, with the theft of their bicycles. Only two years later he is already in love with another woman, Lieneke, and would choose her over his former love, should Saskia suddenly reappear. Lieneke, however, is not happy with Rex, because he never stops thinking about Saskia, and the true contact between him and Lieneke never occurs. Rex’s curiosity about Saskia’s fate is so obsessive that he would rather choose the situation in which she is dead but he knows what happened to her, than her being alive on the condition that he knows nothing. Even the main motivation that ultimately leads Rex to his sacrifice is curiosity, rather than love. George Sluizer emphasizes the similarity in the opposing characters of Raymond and Rex, asserting the nature of Rex’s relationship with Saskia – the nature of any “normal” relationship, really – as inherently sociopathic. There’s a great deal of resemblance between what Rex does to Saskia in the tunnel and what Raymond does to her off-screen. Raymond is claustrophobic, and his idea of “the most horrible deed that is worse than killing” is, of course, the act of trapping a living being in complete and hopeless isolation.
Subjectivism: yet another manifestation of the isolation. I already mentioned the dialogue of Raymond and his wife that expresses the notion of subjectivism very clearly. Raymond’s younger daughter is sure that he has a mistress, and Raymond doesn’t try to convince her otherwise. In the tunnel, Saskia’s suffering is Rex’s triumph, and he subjectively believes that at that moment he’s in love with her, just while she’s at the peak of hating him, tormented by her fear of being abandoned. A single woman who interprets Raymond’s approach as an attempt to pick her up. Saskia, blinded by her love to Rex, falling into the murderer’s trap because she hoped to buy a gift for her husband.
Rex in the beginning of the film is self-centered and oblivious of the emotional needs of Saskia. It’s rather natural that Saskia finds herself isolated even in his presence. After Saskia has vanished, the mounting pressure, the urge to know what happened to his wife gradually transforms Rex, making him take action to overcome his lack of awareness. The only chance to destroy superficiality and subjectivism, the only one way to establish a connection with another human being is to discard the ego by putting oneself through the same experience. Having allowed himself that choice, Rex took the ultimate step toward uniting with Saskia and breaking through the shell of the “golden egg”. Rex’s character arch leads him from the state of natural isolation to the conscious choice of becoming the other person by living through the extreme ordeal that person had experienced, even if it means death in the end. Having thus shed his ego, Rex becomes the true hero. There’s just one problem with his self-sacrifice: it’s naive and ultimately useless. Even in recreating Saskia’s experience, Rex remains isolated within his subjectivism, and his final vision of reuniting with Saskia is nothing more than wishful thinking of a dying man. The reunion only takes place in his imagination. Even the strongest, least conservative action doesn’t lead to lifting the limits of isolation. Death turns out to be not the way to unite with another human being, but merely the way to achieve the ultimate harmony with nature: by dissolving into it, becoming it. Hence, the two separate bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s final resting place.
I am forced to admit that within the limits of the given story, I find the point of view of George Sluizer well-argued. Philosophically, it’s an uncompromising position, and I respect that. And yet, everything in my belief system prevents me from accepting that point of view. Yes, we are limited by our material bodies and social statuses, by language and emotions, and of course we’re bound by the shortness of our lifetime and the need to survive. But I simply can’t allow myself to give up hope that my connection with someone I love is real. Even if true human contact is an exception to the general rule, I want to implement that exception in my reality.