IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN THE EXISTENCE OF EVIL, YOU'VE GOT A LOT TO LEARN
What is it that makes a person evil? Is it something that must be taught, or is it something deeply inherent in some people? If it were something that is handed down through lessons of a sort, what kind of person would actually seek to learn those ways? It’s the classic case of Nature versus Nurture. For director Bryan Singer’s follow-up to the very successful crime thriller The Usual Suspects, he chose to consider this subject by filming an adaptation of a novella from Stephen King’s Different Seasons book. Two of the stories contained therein had already been filmed, 1986’s Stand by Me and 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. The next one in line concerned the story of, essentially, a boy who traps a monster – Apt Pupil.
High-schooler Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) discovers that an old man living in his neighbourhood, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is actually wanted Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander. Todd blackmails Dussander into telling him stories of Dussander’s work in the death camps during WWII or else he’ll tell the authorities. Dussander grudgingly accepts, regaling the boy with horrifying stories of murder and death. However, the more Todd hears, the more it starts to affect him, and the more it awakens the dormant psychopath resting beneath Dussander’s surface.
In 1942, before he wrote the Narnia books for which he is best known, C.S. Lewis published another book, The Screwtape Letters. The book itself is a series of correspondence from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his junior demon nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood regularly asks his experienced uncle for advice and help in tempting his human charge away from God and towards an eternity in Hell. It’s a damn good book, which you should go read if you haven’t already. It also seems to serve as something of an inspiration for the source story of Apt Pupil. Upon learning of the Nazi’s murderous efforts in the Second World War, and that one of the people in his neighbourhood is one of the more notorious members of the Third Reich, Todd sets out, not to expose him, but to learn from him. He’s not looking for tips on genocide, he just wants to know more about what the Nazis really did in the camps. As he puts it, “everything they’re afraid to teach us in school.” Dussander has no intention of doing so to begin with, simply wishing to be left alone in his aging dormancy, but Todd blackmails him, telling about photos and fingerprints and dossiers on record in databases. Honestly, this is probably the weakest part of proceedings, offering little in the way of explaining how a 15-year-old boy is able to acquire a file on a wanted Nazi officer, complete with photos, fingerprints and notes, in 1984 Southern California. It’s a hole, but the film wisely skips over it quickly. With such apparent evidence in Todd’s possession, Dussander has little recourse but to comply with the boy’s request. As the months go by, the pair meet almost every day, Todd going to Dussander’s home under the guise of assisting an old man with poor eyesight... his parents are so proud. He learns about the gassing, the “special soap” the Nazis made, and other such atrocities in the old man’s past. Todd’s most regular question: “what did it feel like?”
There’s the sense throughout that Todd is more than just an overly curious student with a fascination many would call “morbid”. The feeling one gets is that he is feeling the first stirrings of something much darker than mere curiosity, that awakening inside him is the personality of a psychopath. He wants to know how Dussander felt as he killed hundreds, thousands, even millions of people because he wants to know if it matches his own feelings of latent murderous brutality. There are signs throughout that this is the direction he’s going. As the film progresses, he takes recognisable steps on the path of the psycho: he already has a clear and unhealthy obsession with murder; he displays many signs of the manipulation of others; he begins to take his aggression out on small animals (an already injured pigeon); he seems to be impotent, unable to maintain an erection, despite the efforts of the girl he’s with. Todd is gradually unfolding as a predator, and has sought the council of a more experienced monster, whether he really understood why at the time or not.
More interesting is the trajectory of Todd’s new teacher, Kurt Dussander. Formerly one of the most notoriously vicious Nazi officers in Germany (in the book, he is referred to as the “Blood Fiend of Patin”), he long ago escaped from prosecution for war crimes and landed in a suburb in Southern California. Here, he has become a feeble old man, someone with every intention of spending his last days under everyone’s radar. When Todd overturns the rock under which he has been hiding, over the course of the film, Dussander slowly uncoils, finding his own homicidal tendencies to be waking up, too. As he recounts the tales of his exploits to the young boy, Todd eagerly listening and asking questions, there are small hints that Dussander is beginning to enjoy this walk down memory lane. When Todd asks what it felt like to kill people, Dussander lets the briefest of smirks slip across his face before composing himself and dispassionately answering with the party line, “It had to be done.” A scene where Todd buys Dussander a fancy dress costume, an SS Nazi uniform, gives more vent to Dussander’s old self. Todd demands he march for him, which he does, but memory kicks in and the old man begins to rigidly stomp and salute on his own. Without realising it, Todd has unlocked the cage in which Dussander has kept his own monster locked up for years. After this, Dussander becomes more like his old killer self. The old excuse that the Nazis that were caught and tried for their crimes was that they were “only following orders.” It’s clear that, at least with Dussander, he was a monster with or without the orders… he killed so well because he liked it so much.
That the two never entirely trust each other (indeed, why should they?) is a constant battle between them. Todd gets his way through blackmail, but Dussander is still smart enough to know that he needs to protect himself from this boy. They each try to find something else to hold over the other, looking for the upper hand, two fierce creatures circling each other before a fight. Within this, though, they remain somewhat protective of each other. They hate each other intensely, but they need each other, too. Not only do they each claim to have evidence on the other in a “very safe place,” but they can be more comfortably themselves with each other than anyone else. As such, Dussander becomes a positive influence on Todd’s studies, and Todd a great help for when Dussander really needs it. The simple fact is that they are pretty much one and the same. They both project an image of being good and harmless and of no threat to anyone, but they are both very much wolves in sheeps’ clothing. The only difference between them is that Dussander already knows it, and Todd soon will.
There are numerous differences between the film and its source material. The original story is much more violent, with Todd’s killer instinct becoming much more severe. His nightmares, only really touched on in the film, are much darker, and it all adds more credence to his stance as a burgeoning serial killer. The biggest difference is the ending, which many have decried as being too weak in the film when compared to the book’s climax. The book goes for a more hysterical frenzy, with Todd snapping and going on a spree. It’s certainly a far more dramatic ending, but the film aims for something much darker and bleaker. The relative success of that will largely depend on the given viewer, but I rather like it for its sinister implication, and also because it sits much better with the thematic core of the piece. Book Todd didn’t learn his lesson; Film Todd did. If there is one thing I wish was maintained better in the transition from one medium to the other, it’s the radical shift in Todd’s personality before and after his “lessons”. In the beginning, he’s the good, clean-cut, all-American boy, with good grades, a winning smile and wholesome habits. The more he hears from Dussander, the less wholesome he becomes. The fact that he never cursed before meeting Dussander is a big change for him. We simply don’t have time to establish this as a baseline for Todd in the film, so we rely on his scholastic performance as indications of his personality change. It’s not a fatal flaw; it’s just something that stuck with me.
Singer’s direction is perfectly decent, but it’s the acting that is the real strength of the film. Both roles are filled very well. Brad Renfro was the young and good-looking type (I say “was” because he actually died in 2008), but he was capable of projecting a coldness about him, a mean streak that undercut the wholesome veneer nicely. Indeed, that’s what rests at the heart of Todd. You need to believe that he could be the top of his class and a hit with the ladies, but equally so that he could lie, blackmail, and even kill with the same ease. Renfro does this well. Even better is Ian McKellen, who is excellent as the shuffling old man who turns out to be cruel psychopath. The way McKellen holds himself, slightly stooped and slow, belies the keenness of his eyes and the vicious delight in his smile. It’s a dark, unsettling and superbly unnerving performance from the man. Another performance of note is from Elias Koteas, as a homeless man who makes the mistake of buying into Dussander’s act of the harmless old man, much to his regret.
Apt Pupil is a fine and dark film, nicely touching on the nature of evil and where it comes from. Some will likely be disappointed with the deviations from the book, which is a far more violent affair. However, the film achieves a bleaker, if quieter, sensibility than the book. Singer’s direction is strong, and the performances from Renfro and McKellen are both excellent. It’s a sinister and interesting film, and well worth a viewing.