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Metro Pulse Flunking Out

'Apt Pupil' flinches from what it uncovers in its search for the roots of evil.

By Zak Weisfeld

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  What happened in Germany in the early 1940s? I'm not referring to their ill-fated attempt at world domination—the Germans were hardly the first people on earth to follow some shrill psychopath down the bloodstained path of glory and territorial ambition. The Germans are made interesting by the fact that while in the midst of a global war they decided to begin the wholesale execution of certain ethnic groups, many of whom were loyal citizens of Germany itself.

In the end more than six million Jews and millions of Gypsies, Ukrainians, religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and other humans the Nazis found distasteful were slaughtered. And all of it was done with a ruthlessness and efficiency that should haunt Western Civilization until the sun burns out. With their monstrous quest of extermination, the Germans gave us a moment and a word, the Holocaust. It is an event that has come to symbolize the voracious darkness that lurks behind the chipper face of the prosperous, industrialized 20th century.

Though only irredeemable cretins debate the reality of the Holocaust, the events themselves—from exact numbers to methods and psychology—are still being argued. The problem is that the profound questions about the Holocaust can barely be formed, and the answers scarcely imagined. They are questions not about statistics, but about the existence and nature of evil. They are a brilliant premise for a horror movie.

Todd Bowden is an all-American high school senior—studious, athletic, latently homosexual—destined for great things, or at least very good things. Except that Todd is fascinated, even obsessed, with the Holocaust. An obsession with Nazis is, sadly, not unique to American schoolboys, but what makes Todd's special is that he discovers a genuine Nazi war criminal living in his neighborhood.

This is where Apt Pupil begins. Todd, played by Knoxville's own Brad Renfro, decides to extort his Nazi neighbor into answering the big questions about the Holocaust—the kind of things they won't teach in school. His neighbor, Kurt Dussander, played by Ian McKellan, reluctantly complies.

In its first 20 minutes, Apt Pupil is one of the most daring mainstream movies of recent memory. The relationship between Todd and Dussander, with the power of the young boy over the old man, is loaded with sexual undercurrents. As the movie explores Todd's control and obsession, his desire to know what it was like to be there, to do those things, Apt Pupil comes frighteningly close to the heart of the matter.

Most movies about the Holocaust have the actual horror lurking outside. They address the monstrousness of genocide through the eyes of the victim. But the terror of the victim is finite and comprehensible—each of us fears pain, fears death. The more difficult imaginative moment is to understand the mind of the executioner. What is it like to feel the weight of such power? And if it were given to us, would we take it? This is the wicked thrill of Apt Pupil—something in us does want to look at that terrible thing, that dark power, and know it. Like Todd, we want to sit with Dussander and have the inner workings of evil explained to us.

Bryan Singer, who directed the crafty Usual Suspects a couple of years ago, does an excellent job in these early scenes. The tension and odd friendship between Todd and Dussander is kept plausible, and plausibly escalates—a difficult task given the unusual juxtaposition of a high school student and a Nazi.

Singer's given a great boost by his cast. Renfro plays Todd Bowden frighteningly well. He reveals that behind Todd's schoolboy curiosity is a powerful vacancy, a festering, cupid-lipped emptiness. Waiting to fill it is Ian McKellan, who, as Dussander, seems at once a broken-down old man hoping desperately to forget his past and the devil.

If only they'd had a different script. Apt Pupil's most horrific scene occurs within the first half hour, after which the movie takes a hard turn away from the unfathomable banality of evil and into mere banality. What was horror becomes suspense as Dussander turns the tables on Todd. At this point Apt Pupil bends away from its creepy musings on evil and becomes a fairly standard thriller.

When Dussander tries to stuff a stray cat into his lit oven, it is clear that Apt Pupil has strayed. It is a testament to McKellan's ability that he is almost able to make the moment work. But even his skill can't hide the fact that what the scene really represents is a cop out, an unwillingness to look hard at the very question that got Apt Pupil off to such a potent start.

It's a pity, though it's hard to blame anyone. After all, the Holocaust doesn't slash nubile co-eds or chase stranded motorists down hallways with chainsaws. It doesn't hide in the closet with a butcher's knife or otherwise propel a movie to any kind of neat conclusion. Instead, the Holocaust hovers around us like fog, and coalesces in Asia or Central Africa or the former Yugoslavia—and the question remains unanswered.

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