Genre: Drama, Thriller
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro
I once heard a quote attributed to Jack Nicholson that the internet can’t verify: “sin, but in moderation.” Obsession didn’t make the cut when they put together the 7 deadly, but if pushed far enough is just as dangerous and that’s what Apt Pupil is ultimately about. A flawed film at best, it does make you think about the world even after the credits roll and if that’s not what motivates an art form, I don’t know what does.
Apt Pupil is presented as a thriller and my guess is that it’s for commercial reasons. Really, it’s a drama about two people and the obsessions that draw them together. Brad Renfro plays Todd Bowden, a teenager who is top of his class and from a prestigious family. After acing a school project on the holocaust, he notices an elderly man on the bus that resembles one of the faces in his textbook. The old man he identifies is Kurt Dussander, a concentration-camp commandant living as a fugitive under the name Arthur Denker. Dussander is played by Ian McKellen, who steals the show. A great performance lies in the details and I found myself fascinated by just how Dussander holds a cigarette. It’s one of many examples of how the parts of this film are greater than their sum.
Bowden blackmails Dussander into telling him the details of the holocaust that the textbooks deemed not suitable for kids in exchange for keeping his identity secret. It’s the evolution of this relationship that drives the movie and forces the audience to guess what the characters are really feeling. Does Bowden disdain Dussander or envy him? Does Dussander get joy from company after decades of loneliness or does he get off on the attention he gets. The holocaust isn’t an atrocity that can be attributed to one cause, but obsession with the concept of a master race is obviously a leading factor. What the Nazi’s were really obsessed about was everyone else. They were most obsessed with Jews. The subject gave them an endorphin rush, a narcotic high. They were also obsessed with public opinion. After the Versailles Treaty that officially ended WWI, German’s felt shamed by their loss and resented the arrogance they felt the rest of Europe had over them. The Third Reich was their declaration that they would no longer be disrespected, even if it meant they would be hated. To them, it was a beneficial trade. The two obsessions became inseparable and as Dussander says in the movie, “a door had been opened and couldn’t be shut. It was the end.”
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Bowden reawakens Dussander’s obsessions and inadvertently fuels his own. He becomes obsessed with the atrocities of the war. He can’t get enough even though the stories keep him up at night. Like a drug addict he wants more even though he knows it’s poison to him. He then becomes obsessed with Dussander. He buys him a present and forces him to parade around in a Nazi uniform. It starts to feel like he’s sad that he missed out on the opportunity to live the experience himself and is living it vicariously through Dussander. Finally, he starts to share Dussander’s obsessions.
What the characters really feel and what the movie really means we can only guess as the audience. What we know for certainty is the power of evil and what I think the movie shows us is the roads that lead to an embrace of that evil. I can’t say the movie has a narrative thread that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I also can’t say the movie was a disappointment because the characters and the choices they make are deeply fascinating.