Worth A Look: 22.39%
Just Average: 18.66%
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Is it possible for a person to be an accessory after the fact to a crime that was committed twenty-four years before they were born? This is one of the questions that the film “Apt Pupil” asks. But, the film does more than this. It is a thought-provoking film which demonstrates the potential for evil that exists in human beings.The story is about a teenage boy, Todd Bowmen, a straight “A” student who has lettered in sports. He is fascinated with the holocaust, a subject he is studying in sociology class. One day, when going home on the bus, he recognizes an old Nazi war criminal named Kurt Dussander, a.k.a. Arthur Denker. Todd goes to the old man’s house and tells him that he will not report him in exchange for stories about the old man’s duties in the concentration camps. Todd becomes the “apt” pupil because the old Nazi is the catalyst that encourages the growth of the boy’s dark side.
"The potential for evil exists where you least expect it."
WARNING: This review analyzes the message in the film by looking at the characters, the themes, and the plot. To do this it is necessary to look at the entire story, beginning to end. Therefore, if you have not seen the film, please stop reading now; then, after you’ve seen the film, please come back.
The film opens in a high school sociology class in which the topic is the holocaust. The first thing we hear is the teacher summing up his lesson:
And still the question remains? Was it economic, was it social, or was it simply a matter of human nature? What is it that made some people do what they did and other people to do nothing at all?
This is the key question the film attempts to answer. It does so through the symbol of the open door. The open door is established early in the film:
TODD: What did it feel like?
DUSSANDER: It was just something that had to be done. A door had been opened and couldn’t be shut. It was the end. You don’t understand.
Opening the door represents, first, the specific unleashing of evil within Hitler’s Germany. (Hitler tapped into Germany’s potential for racial hatred.) Secondly, opening the door demonstrates that, once society condones a certain evil, it is like opening Pandora’s box. That is, the potential that exists in all human beings to do evil is unleashed. In the film, the door is opened once again for Dussander, and for the first time for Todd.
When the film opens, the evil in Dussander is dormant. But, once Todd forces Dussander to wear a hired Nazi uniform, the old Nazi’s dormant evil begins to reassert itself. Todd forces the old man to march in the uniform, and suddenly, the old man becomes like a puppet out of control. He begins to march vigorously then salute, etc. Todd has to order him to stop. Dussander’s comment is, “Boy, be careful, you play with fire.” Dussander’s almost mindless marching, which is like a conditioned reflex, symbolizes the effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda machine that could make people obey orders without thinking.
Wearing the uniform opens the door again for Dussander. This is shown by what he does afterward. He attempts to kill a cat, impersonates Todd's grandfather, is capable of Machiavellian maneuvering to get the upper hand over Todd, and assaults the drunk.
Todd is the “apt” pupil, as he is ready for his dark side to be released by Dussander. Even before Todd meets Dussander, Todd’s interest in the holocaust is evident. Immediately after class, Todd goes to the library and starts looking at information about the Nazis. Soon after this, Todd blackmails Dussander.
Once Todd hears the old man’s stories, he gets vivid nightmares and hallucinations. He imagines he sees holocaust victims. (His hallucination in the gym shower is particularly frightening.) After Todd and his family have dinner with Dussander, Todd’s obsession is even worse. The scene ends with Dussander lying about his past to Todd’s parents while they are eating dinner. Then the lies are cut over by Dussander’s voice telling his real story. Then there is a dissolve into Todd’s room. Todd is alone in his room surrounded by pictures of the holocaust, and is remembering Dussander’s words. Then Todd’s image is superimposed over a gas chamber door. A Nazi swastika, which is next to that door, is superimposed on Todd’s shoulder, and this symbolizes the strength of Todd’s obsession. The camera then zooms into the door, and the scene ends with a cut to a close up of Todd in Dussander’s house listening to the old man’s story.
After this, Todd degenerates still further. His grades slip, he becomes impotent, and has a hard time studying. There is a scene about fifty minutes into the movie that shows how strong his obsession is becoming. He is studying and has vivid memories and hallucinations about Nazis, Dussander, and the holocaust. The rapid montage of images swirling in Todd’s brain is almost subliminal in its effect. The scene ends with Todd riding his bike home through a tunnel. He looks confused, as his mind is preoccupied with all that Dussander has said to him. The boy then sees a Nazi swastika scrawled on the tunnel side. He then hears Dussander’s words, “Be careful, you play with fire,” and Todd crashes his bike.
Todd’s growing obsession is significant as it becomes fertile ground for the seed of evil within him that is waiting to be nourished by Dussander. This is shown by the many links that are established between Dussander and Todd.
First, a link between the two is established by a close up of both Dussander and Todd, each in their own house, laying awake in bed, thinking.
Second, when Todd is practicing shooting baskets (and doing terrible), he sees a pigeon with a broken wing and kills it by smashing the basketball on it. You could not call it a mercy killing, because most people would not kill it, but would contact the humane society. Killing it was unnecessary cruelty. The killing of the pigeon takes place after the scene where Dussander tries to kill the cat. Thus, Dussander’s evil is linked to Todd’s.
Third, both Todd and Dussander, in several scenes, use the same dialogue. Todd is obviously learning from Dussander. There are two examples of this:
1. First example:
Early in the film, Todd asks Dussander, “What did it feel like?” Then, towards the end of the film, in relation to Todd’s killing of the drunk, Dussander asks Todd, “What did it feel like?”
2. Second example:
In the scene where Dussander blackmails Todd in order to force him to work hard in school, Dussander says, “Do you really think I would stand aside and let you turn me in without dragging you down with me?” And later, in the same scene, Dussander says, “Do you know what such a scandal can do. It never goes away, not for you. And not for your parents.”
Now, at the end of the film, Todd blackmails the guidance counselor by threatening to make the counselor look like a pedophile. In that scene, Todd says to the counselor, “I don’t want to drag you down with me.” Then, later, in the same scene, Todd says, “The things I'm going to say, they’ll never go away. Not for you. Think of you job. Think of your son.”
The scene ends with them staring at each other. Then the camera cuts to a baseball game, and Todd pitches the ball. Then a quite catchy German song about Berlin begins while Todd is playing basketball. Then the film cuts to Todd at the movies with a date. We still hear the song and Todd spots Dussander laughing at the film. This symbolizes that Todd can’t escape Dussander’s influence.
Note: The idea of staring or facing off is used several times: between Todd and Dussander, between Dussander and the Nazi hunter, and, significantly, in the end, between Todd and the guidance counselor.
The fifth link between Dussander and Todd occurs towards the end of the film. There is a shot of Dussander’s house, and in front of the house there is a lost animal poster identifying the cat that Dussander tried to kill. The cat represents a victim of Dussander’s evil, and thus can symbolize that evil. Now, when we see the poster, Todd is in the house burying a body. Thus, the evil of Dussander is linked to Todd.
The sixth link relates to lying. At one point in the story Dussander tells Todd:
And besides, lying to judges and reporters isn’t as easy as you
think. You’d have to be brilliant. Can you do that? I know I can.
And, at the end of the film, Todd has absorbed Dussander’s evil ability. Todd is able to lie successfully to the police and to his father.
Seventh, the links in the end sequence leading into the credits are very symbolic. Dussander’s death is intercut with Todd’s confrontation with the counselor to show that Dussander has passed on his legacy of evil to Todd. Todd blackmails the guidance counselor, then concludes by saying to him, “You have no idea what I can do.” Then we hear the flatline sound of Dussander’s heart monitor, and then we see the flatline. We then see Todd’s face, and the camera pulls back as he shoots a basket, and then Dussander’s dead face is encircled by the basketball hoop and the soundtrack again plays the German song about Berlin. (This symbolizes that the evil of Dussander has passed to Todd). Then the screen fades to black and the credits roll. At this stage, we know Todd has truly become a Machiavellian, and inherited Dussander’s evil.
We can understand all the links in the film relating to faces because we are set up to see these links in the opening credits. The credits are superimposed over photographs of the holocaust, then Dussander, then more Nazi faces, and then more holocaust victims. Then we see Nazis, then Dussander, then Himmler, then Hitler (whose photo is next to a wolf’s face - possibly symbolizing cunning, etc.). Then there is a close up of Hitler’s eyes, then the story goes to 1984, the time the film begins. (In some of the montage, Todd’s face is seen very slightly superimposed over the photographs of the Nazis, etc.)
One explanation the film gives for people doing evil is that they don’t think. This is evident in the failed blow-job-make-out scene. The following dialogue takes place:
TODD: Do you ever wonder why people do things they do? Think
about it seriously.
GIRL: It’s better not to think, it’s better to just do it. (Tries to give him oral sex.)
Note that Todd’s question is the same question posed by his sociology teacher in the beginning of the film. Now, on the literal level, the girl’s answer means just what it says, that she wants to have sex, and will just do it without thinking about it. However, on the symbolic level, the girl’s reply is a symbolic answer to the sociology teacher’s question. That is, her reply can be generalized to mean that some people won’t think, they are conditioned well enough so that they will just do it. For example, many Nazis didn’t think, they just followed orders. (The uniform scene is an example of this type of conditioning.)
The main message of the film is emphasized by its themes.
One of the most obvious themes is the consequences of searching for forbidden knowledge. Todd wanted to hear the old man’s stories because they were, as Todd tells Dussander, stories about “Everything they were afraid to show us in school.” Todd’s graduation address about Ikaros illustrates this theme. During the speech the camera cuts between Todd and the police searching Dussander’s house (and finding the body of the drunk). The symbolism in Todd's speech is shown in the following segment of his speech. (N.B. I have put in parenthesis the symbolic meaning of the word or words before the parenthesis):
All of us have heard the story of Ikaros. The young boy who
took the wings (knowledge) his father (country, history, or
heritage) built for him. Wings that were meant to carry him
over the ocean to freedom (knowledge) and used them instead
for a joy ride (hearing the old man's stories). For a brief moment Ikaros felt what it was like to live as a god (when Todd had the power over Dussander), to touch the sun, to soar above the common man. And for doing so he paid the ultimate price (Todd has to suffer the guilt of killing the drunk). Like Ikaros we too have been given gifts: knowledge, education, experience. And with these gifts comes the responsibility of choice. (Todd chose wrong as he did not turn
Dussander in.) We alone decide how our talents are bestowed upon
the world. This is our destiny and we hold it in the palm of our hands.
Another important theme is the Machiavellian theme. This is related to the idea of a game. In the very beginning, Dussander says to Todd, “I don’t have time for games.”
But the entire film is a game, a Machiavellian poker game between Dussander and Todd. It is fascinating to watch as either Todd or Dussander, through various maneuvers, acquire and try to maintain the upper hand. (As Dussander says to Todd: “My dear boy. Don’t you see? We are fucking each other.”)
The film makes two particularly strong points about evil. First, it shows the full horror of evil:
TODD: Once they were in the chamber, how long
did it take? Like a minute, five minutes?
DUSSANDER: No, the Prussic acid took about fifteen minutes.
But the monoxide could take an hour, sometimes more.
TODD: What happened to them? I mean exactly.
DUSSANDER: It was a mess. They would lose control of their
bodies. They vomited, urinated and defecated themselves. Even though the gas came in through vents in the ceiling – they would climb up on each other desperately reaching for fresh air that wasn’t there. They died in a mountain of themselves.
TODD: What about the children?
DUSSANDER: On the bottom.
Second, one of the most frightening points the film makes is that the evil of the Nazis is still here. The scene outside the hospital where the neo-Nazis are demonstrating and giving the Nazi salute is frightening.
One weakness in the plot, however, is that the resolution does not grow directly out of the plot. That is, Dussander is recognized because a holocaust victim just happens to be in the bed next to him. However, it worked dramatically, and so I found this a little too much of a coincidence, but dramatically it was handled very well, and I was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief.
The DVD had a good picture and a very effective soundtrack. However, the only extra was a very short documentary, just an advertisement for the film really. (If there was no director’s commentary, then the special feature should be longer than six minutes and twenty seconds at least.)The film is based on a story by the Stephen King. The film makes us realize that humans have done enough evil in reality to rival anything the most horrible imaginings of any writer could conjure up.
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originally posted: 10/20/00 09:03:13