Apt Pupil


Todd Bowden, a young American history student, discovers that a reclusive old man in his town is Kurt Dussander, a former Nazi officer. Fascinated, he blackmails the old man into telling him about Nazism – what was it really like? But his questions seem to re-awaken Dussander’s dormant Nazism, and Dussander in turn awakens something within Todd. It will end in tears for someone – but who?

Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, the film is an assured piece of story-telling that goes some way to confronting the horror and cruelty we may all be capable of.
USA/France 1997, 111 minutes

Programme Notes

Sixteen-year-old Todd Bowden, a history student, becomes fascinated by Nazi war crimes, and discovers that a reclusive old man in his town is Kurt Dussander, once commander of a concentration camp. Who better to tell him what Nazism was really all about? If he’ll talk. Todd threatens him with exposure, and the stories begin to emerge, and with them Dussander’s dormant Nazism, re-awakened by the boy’s eager questions. Dussander, in turn, awakens Todd’s latent cruelty, and the two become locked in a mutual dependence which will end in tears for someone.

That this relationship is homoerotic almost goes without saying; the latently homosexual Nazi has become a stereotype. And besides, Todd is given to wandering about with no shirt on and Dussander is played by Ian McKellen. But it’s more complex and subtle than that, and the shifts of power between the two are more than just sexual. The story has been described as ‘going some way to show how far-right groups in the USA can gain adherents from seemingly well-educated middle-class citizens’. It’s also been said that Dussander represents an ancient, peculiarly European evil undermining the innocence of the New World in the shape of a young, all-American boy (if only the New World were so innocent!). It’s bigger, and simpler, than either. Evil speaks to evil, evil feeds on evil, and evil can find evil – anywhere.

The novella from which the film has been adapted is regarded by many as one of the best things Stephen King has ever written. It’s a true modern horror story, not about ghoulies and ghosties but about something real and far more terrible. The film has been criticised for abandoning the tale’s moral complexities for standard thriller material, but it comes closer than other adaptations of King’s work to his atmosphere of pure dread, leaving its audience with a chill that won’t go away when the lights come up.

Kurt Dussander: Ian McKellen
Todd Bowden: Brad Renfro
Archie: Elias Koteas
Edward French: David Schwimmer
Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Director: Bryan Singer
Producers: Jane Hamshet, Don Murphy, Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Brandon Boyce


“A gripping piece of mutual blackmail”

“Supping full of horrors”

“The main thing is he got good grades, so Chris Woodhead would approve!”

“Fascinating but harrowing – not to see again”

“Impossible to ignore! Moments of almost Grand Guignol melodrama, but great strength of story & message”

“Very frightening! Believable”

“Dussander unconvincingly played by McKellen. Mise en scène rather like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ “.

“Too horrible – sorry I saw it. Unclassifiable!”