Movie Review: Apt Pupil (1998)

Starring: Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro and Bruce Davison

Directed by: Bryan Singer

After discovering that a Nazi war criminal is hiding within his neighbourhood, Todd Bowden blackmails the former death camp leader into telling him his secrets and what really happened in exchange for not turning him into the authorities.

Ian McKellen is a well rounded and well established actor and for all his accomplishments and accolades I haven’t seen much of his work outside his portrayal Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings movies and Magneto in the X-Men franchise. Combine my intrigue for seeing more of his work with a fascinating story of a Nazi war criminal hiding in America after fleeing Berlin in the 50’s left me super excited to see what Apt Pupil had to offer.

Apt Pupil boasted a fantastic story which had a lot of mind games woven into the root of the plot which only illustrated how persuasive and cunning the Nazi’s could be. Ian McKellen stars as Kurt Dussander who was a Nazi SS Officer who was instrumental during the war in the killing of Jews in both the gas chambers and in Ukraine. He was a war criminal who was considered as one of Hitler’s henchmen and he was hiding in America under the alias Arthur Denker. Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) was a senior in high school who had a bit of an interest in the Nazi’s and the Holocaust and confronts Dussander with the truth and blackmails him to “tell him the details that school doesn’t” or he’ll turn him in to face trial in Israel. From then Dussander tells all his stories of cruelty and genocide which then begins to turn into a cat and mouse mind game as they both try and gain the advantage over the other which has the potential to end disastrously for one of if not both of them.

The story being told was so riveting and it was mixed with so many harrowing and disturbing details from Dussander as he recounts his war crimes but perhaps the most disturbing part was Todd’s reaction to the stories as he seemed to almost revel in the facts that he was being told. The way Todd initially reacted I thought the movie was going to develop with him losing his mind with the information he was given and going on a psychotic rage and being a school shooter or something equally as horrifying. Instead the details began to mess with his head as he starts to have visions of the gas chambers and falls behind in school. Brad Renfro as Todd Bowden was ok, could’ve been a lot better though as his acting was sometimes quite questionable but for the most part he was a little less than adequate. Ian McKellen on the other hand was exceptional and performs so well as Kurt Dussander that I could watch him in this role again and again and never get tired of it. His accent work was sensational and his mannerisms and wicked coldness were bone chilling at times. The hospital scene towards the end where WWII survivor Ben Kramer recognises Dussander was absolutely brilliantly acted by Michael Byrne who played Kramer and it was such a heart wrenching moment watching him breakdown as he realises who Dussander is, the pain and emotion on display is brilliant.

Overall, Apt Pupil is a very good movie which explores the psychological power that the Nazi’s had during the war. McKellen was tremendous and the story being told was wonderfully executed. Some of the support actors, especially co-star Brad Renfro were fairly mediocre at times and McKellen really deserved better.


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