1. The ever-encroaching camera and lighting serves to fetishize Todd’s body in a manner more customarily applied to the female body.

2. Todd’s first “shower scene” nightmare, where he peeps through a porthole.

3. Close up of the male Holocaust victim who stares at Todd through the porthole.

4. Male victim staring at Todd in the boy’s nightmare.

5. Dussander makes the transition from fetishistic object to monster.

6. Todd, baffled and rendered powerless, in a close-up reaction shot.

7. Dussander stands narcissistically in front of a mirror, grasping his crotch. The wearing of the uniform awakens his dormant monstrous sexuality.

Apt Pupil’s misogyny, homoeroticism and homophobia:
sadomasochism and the Holocaust film

by Caroline Joan (Kay) S. Picart and Jason Grant McKahan

That sadomasochism and homoeroticism often accompany the depiction of Nazism in the Holocaust film has long been recognized. Ilan Avisar, in Screening the Holocaust, traces what he calls the connection of Nazism and “sexual deviance” to Rossellini’s Open City.[1] Gerd Gemünden suggests that in 1942, “the association of male homosexuality with sadism and perversion [as in the effeminate portrayal of Heydrich in Hangmen Also Die] … anticipates postwar films such as The Damned (Visconti 1969) and Night Porter (Cavani 1974).”[2] Richard Plant in The Pink Triangle indicates that the Soviet film, The Fighters (Wangenheim 1936), depicted Nazis as effeminate perverts.[3] The goal of this article is to examine the depiction of sexuality in the Holocaust narrative film in general, and in specific, in the adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, Apt Pupil, into film (dir. Brian Singer, Phoenix/TriStar Pictures, 1998). As we aim to show, the novella’s construction of the Nazi-as-monstrous takes place against the backdrop of misogyny; in the film, it’s against an ambivalent fluctuation across homoerotic and homophobic registers. Apt Pupil presents a test case to analyze theoretically the frisson that lures us into watching and reading Nazi iconography and torture in Holocaust narratives as sexual.

Anti-Nazi propaganda in World War II portrayed Nazis as “perverted, sadistic, and homosexual,” which remarkably parallels Nazi rhetoric condemning Jews and contragenics as “pestilence, plague, social sickness, and aberration from the normal” and “sexually deviant,” usually either hyper-masculinized monsters who preyed on innocent German girls or sexually impotent pseudo males who were never quite as human as the Germans. Yet there is also a tension in the typical depiction of a male Nazi since it hypermasculinizes him beyond the bounds of normality into the realm of the Nietzschean Übermensch. As Jean-Pierre Geuens remarks:

The fullness of the historical facts shrinks into a few iconic scenes...: the shiny boots, the skull and bones on the black cap, the impeccable military uniform, the leather coats of the Gestapo men, the cold, blond SS officer, the Heil Hitler, the heel clicking, the burning of the books, “the glory of the Third Reich,” and the classical music with which the guards welcome the deportees. In these images, problematically, the Nazis are presented almost as they themselves would have liked to have been seen at the time: cool, perfect, efficient, an irresistible force operating in a world whose history is preordained.[4]

In terms of film, this type of ideological shorthand or caricature persists and is often packaged as part of what makes contemporary Gothic-inspired portraits of Nazis sell.

What has often been underestimated in well-meaning fictional denunciations of fascism is the tendency of sexualized villainy to excite and fascinate the subject. Sexualized images can undermine authorial intent because they always present the possibility of triggering a number of emotional reactions in spectators, ranging from horror to desire. Propaganda, in its attempt to establish one united voice, fails to take full account of the shifting spectatorial identification and the ways in which sexual representations metaphorically and literally “move” the human body. However, in order to evaluate the interests Western culture has in recounting and representing the Holocaust in part as related to sexual practice, we believe that prior to proceeding to a particular test case, it is necessary to consider the larger issues of sadomasochism as a sexual practice and as generally used to depict torture in drama, fiction, and film.

Sadomasochism has been portrayed widely in mass culture: in advertisements (Calvin Klein, Obsession), music (Rock, New Wave, Punk, Heavy Metal), books (Europa, Under the Hill, Confessions and Experiences), films (Crash, 9 1/2 Weeks, Blue Velvet) and television programs (Twin Peaks, Favorite Son).[5] In terms of its analysis in the psychological literature, there has been much written on sadism and masochism since Krafft-Ebing coined the two neologisms in Psychopathia Sexualis (1885). Krafft-Ebing then framed sadism and masochism as mutually exclusive, opposing “sexual perversions,” but he also recognized that displays of sadism were found in normal sexual practice. As he defined the terms, sadism consisted of “sexual pleasurable sensations produced by cruelty, bodily punishment inflicted on others,” and masochism, “the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force.”[6] Freud later linked sadism and masochism into a single complimentary “perversion,” sado-masochism.[7]

In his essay, “A Child is Being Beaten,” Freud described beating fantasies in terms of three conscious and unconscious “moments,” in which beating fantasies take on fluctuating sadistic and masochistic positions – beater, beaten, onlooker.[8] Freud recorded the first moment of the beating fantasy, according to his female patients, with the following phrase (sections in brackets were either elicited or inserted by Freud):

My father is beating the child [whom I hate].

The second moment is phrased:

I am being beaten by my father.

And the third moment is phrased:

Some boys are being beaten [by a paternal representative. I am probably looking on].

Freud explains that the first moment is really an unclear recollection, and that fantasy really begins with the second moment, which substitutes the child herself for an anonymous child. Positive Oedipal desire intercedes between the first and second phase as the child punishes herself for her desires and satisfies desire through a regression to anal sexuality. However, the second phase is so deeply repressed, it is recoverable only as a “construction of analysis.” The third phase takes the place as a conscious and erotogenic fantasy, in which a group of boys stands in for the female child as the recipients of punishment as the child looks on, now masculinized by the fantasy. (Freud noted that male subjects imagined boys, rather than girls, as standing in for themselves during the third phase, which means that the objects of beating in the third phase are always sexed as male.)

In short, Freud ascribes sadomasochism to sexual repression in the Oedipal phase as the child fears punishment for acting out sexual desires. Lynn Chancer concludes,

Freud did not develop his analysis into a full-blown historical criticism of social institutions that are sexually repressive (such as, in many cases, the family).[9]

In attributing sadomasochism to the Oedipal phase, Freud intimates but never clearly states that rather being than a biological sexual instinct, sadomasochism is a social phenomenon imbedded in a culture based on male dominance and female submission and on sexual repression and aggression in literate societies.[10] In this vein, we may look to the social domination of institutions for answers to our questions about the popularity of sadomasochism in mass culture.

The role of sadomasochism in media and popular culture has been articulated by some feminist film theorists. According to critics such as Laura Mulvey, sadism is the ruling perversion in cinema, which is complicit with the male gaze. Women are thus controlled within film narratives by male-oriented narrative trajectories of investigation and punishment or by a visual regime of sadistic fetishism, “fetishistic scopophilia.”[11] Gaylyn Studlar notes that what is left out of this model is masochism and proposes an alternative model in which visual pleasure is not sadistic, but rather masochistic. In this version, cinema’s visual pleasure is related to viewers’ pre-oedipal pleasures of oral merger and fusion with the mother as opposed to separation and identification with the father.[12] However, Linda Williams questions the “either/or oppositions” of Mulvey and Studlar’s models by emphasizing the pleasure of sadomasochistic fantasy in its non-fixed, interrelated, oscillation “between masculine/feminine, active/passive, sadistic/masochistic and oedipal/preoedipal” positions.[13] Quoting Studlar, Tanya Modleski and Teresa de Lauretis, Williams attempts to describe a model of “bisexuality,” in which more “fluid” interactions allow both male and female viewers to move across masculine and feminine identifications. She warns, however, that such a theory would only be effective if the masculine and feminine identificatory positions “are not considered apart from larger relations of power that devalue femininity and ultimately repress male masochism.”[14]

Williams’ remarks are particularly fruitful for evaluating Apt Pupil’s transformation from novella to film because the grounds for establishing the monstrosity of Nazi sexuality in the two versions shift from misogyny to homoeroticism-homophobia. Yet ultimately, in both cases, there is a similar narrative pattern, which can also be seen in many other works that do not necessarily have an overt connection to the Holocaust but partake of the same Gothic horror-psychological thriller-sexualized torture coding (e.g, Carrie and Blue Velvet). That narrative pattern may be schematized in the following way: sexual awakening, followed by fascination with power, costume and ritual; an overwhelming desire to find out more, leading to danger; an attempt at power/mastery, which is reversed by events in a dramatic way; and an overturning of power relations in which the victimizer becomes the victim.[15] By looking closely at the fantasized relations in one particular film, Apt Pupil, we shall examine the frisson and fascination of this type of narrative and analyze its implications in terms of spectatorship, gender, and power.

The novella

In the novella, Apt Pupil, homophobia is a sexual “problem” associated with monstrous Nazism. Todd expects to find in Dussander the hypermasculine “fiend of Patin,” but those hopes are initially dashed by Dussander’s appearance at the door as a decrepit old man in a squalid bathrobe.[16] Todd’s desire for Dussander is associated with longing to reconstruct the old man to look the part of his infamous name and make him (sexually) attractive again:

He was really going to have to do something about the way Dussander dressed when he was at home. It spoiled some of the fun.[17]

Thus, Todd decides to buy Dussander an S.S. uniform, which Dussander does not want to wear[18] but Todd insists firmly.

Dussander let [his] robe fall to the floor and stood naked except for his slippers and boxer shorts . . . but the uniform, Todd thought. The uniform will make a difference. [19]

When Dussander appears in the uniform, Todd is “pleased . . . for the first time Dussander looked to Todd as Todd believed he should look.”[20] Thus, Todd’s masculine idealization of Dussander as a “war criminal” corresponds to Dussander as a pleasurable object of a homoerotic gaze. By blackmailing Dussander, Todd not only secures the authority that allows him to control Dussander as an object of the gaze whenever he desires, but also in the process of “remaking” Dussander, he has the pleasurable sensation of manipulating Dussander to fulfill his fantasies of sexualized power. Thus, for Todd, Dussander as a homoerotic object is a monstrous variation of “normal” heterosexual desire. Though Todd’s demands to remake Dussander in the image of his fantasies concerning the perfect Nazi killing machine initially seem non-sexual, the narrative’s sexual dimensions become more overt as the story’s momentum picks up.

As the novella progresses, Dussander increasingly begins to appear as a homoerotic object in Todd’s nightmares; yet the dreams immediately signal homoeroticism’s closeness to homophobia within heterosexuality. In one dream, Todd is in a selection line of camp deportees and Dussander chooses him: “Take this one to the laboratories.” [21] By no coincidence, in another dream, the laboratory turns out to be the same one in which the young Jewish woman is bound to the table—and Dussander is also present. “Dussander was assisting him. Dussander wore a white butcher’s apron and nothing else. When he pivoted to turn on the monitoring equipment, Todd could see Dussander’s scrawny buttocks grinding at each other like misshapen white stones.”[22]

In the novella, Todd’s monstrous sexual drives appear to fluctuate between paradigms of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Despite the grotesque erotization of Dussander’s buttocks, at this point Todd’s conscious “object-choice” is a 16 year old Jewish virgin whom he rapes with a metal-tipped dildo under Dussander’s “scientific” mentorship.

Dimly, far off, he could hear Dussander reciting: ‘Test run eighty-four. Electricity, sexual stimulus, metabolism. . .’ She cried out when the tip of the dildo touched her. Todd found the cry pleasant, as he did her fruitless struggles to free herself, or, lacking that, to at least bring her legs together.[23]

In contrast, in the film this nightmare sequence gets replaced by three “shower-gas chamber” scenes, in which it is now the male body that emerges as simultaneously eroticized and terrorized; in the film this is what codes these scenes as “nightmarish” and “monstrous.”

Repeatedly in the short story, Todd and Dussander’s relationship is coded with homoerotic undertones, which recur whenever the two speak of their relationship. Dussander tells Todd he is “mixed up” with him, that their “fate[s] are inextricably entwined,”[24] and they “are in this together, sink or swim.”[25] Todd continually wishes to break off the association and asks Dussander, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” To which Dussander replies, “My boy . . . we are fucking each other—didn’t you know that?”[26] As their relationship evolves, Dussander gets an equal hold on Todd and the boy fears that those around him will detect the sexual “abnormality” of their liaison. Todd grows angry when his father complains that he “is spending a little too much time with Mr. Denker.”[27] Todd imagines having to explain this relationship to his friends:

Guys, I got mixed up with this war criminal I got him right by the balls, and then—ha ha, this’ll killya, guys—then I found out he was holding my balls as tight as I was holding his. I started having funny dreams and the cold sweats.[28]

Both Dussander and Todd strive to reinforce their heterosexual masculine identities by feminizing and victimizing homeless men.

They both dreamed of murder . . . Todd awoke with the now familiar stickiness of his lower belly. Dussander, too old for such things, put on the SS uniform and then lay down again, waiting for his racing heart to slow.[29]

Todd first meets a wino, who offers him sexual favors:

For a buck I’d do you a blowjob, you never had better. You’d come your brains out, kid you’d—[30]

Later, he begins a killing spree on the homeless and masturbates afterward. Dussander, in the role of a “well-to-do old faggot,” similarly tempts winos back to his house with the promise of money for sex, then murders and buries them in his basement.[31]

Thus the spectatorial points of identification between Todd and Dussander are understandably mixed: the two are both victims and victimizers and therefore simultaneously sympathetic and alienating characters. Since King paints both portraits in such large stereotypical and caricatured patterns, with Todd as the all American, apparently all too normal, perfect boy next door, and Dussander as the All German, apparently all too abnormal, perfect monster next door, there is a sense in which we, the audience, maintain a confused relation to them. Like Todd, we listen voyeuristically to Dussander’s graphic descriptions of the unmentionable; yet we do not feel too sorry when the tables are turned and it is now Todd’s turn to be victimized (particularly as his “punishment” is studying hard). There is a sense in which, though we fluctuate in our allegiances to Todd and Dussander, we remain at the level of Freud’s first stage; we spy on either the Dussander or Todd figure being “beaten” into submission (each of whom we love to “hate”—precisely because they are caricatures). We remain spectators looking in from the outside. Or we feel justified that such a beating is necessary to the narrative and thus identify with the beater rather than the beaten. These responses are encouraged precisely because the novella plays upon stereotypes so thoroughly that it invites the possibility of an ironic read.

Though this type of complex relationship to the main male characters is possible, the audience relationship with the women in the novella is far more conventional and linear. Although Todd exhibits misogynistic tendencies from the beginning of the novella,[32] his degradation of women chiefly reflects an attempt to reaffirm his masculinity. Thus, Monica Bowden and Betty Trask are objects of misogyny in Apt Pupil, but are by no means the only disparaged female characters.[33] Todd’s relation with his mother, Monica Bowden, is just one instance of misogyny. Initially, his mother’s body is consigned to incestuous objectification.

His mother wasn’t a bad-looking chick for thirty-six, Todd thought; blonde hair that was streaked ash in a couple of places, tall, shapely, now dressed in dark red shorts and a sheer blouse of a warm whiskey color—the blouse was casually knotted below the breasts, putting her flat, unlined midriff on show.[34]

They converse as though age-mates in affectionate idioms such as “Toddy-baby” and “Monica-baby.[35]

Todd becomes increasingly hateful in his treatment of Monica. When his mother develops suspicions concerning the purpose of Todd’s visits to Denker’s house, Todd suddenly detests her, “hating the half-informed intuition he saw swimming in her eyes.”[36] Shortly thereafter, Denker has a heart attack and Todd calls his parents in a panic, aiming to rush to the old man to the hospital. When Monica’s “soft, cultured voice” answers the phone, Todd sees himself “slamming the muzzle of the .30-.30 into her nose and pulling the trigger into the first flow of blood.”[37] King treats this shift in Todd’s attitude concerning his mother as emblematic of a larger sexual abnormality cultivated by Todd’s perpetual descent into the degenerate universe of the Nazi Dussander.[38]

Todd’s relation with his girlfriend, Betty Trask, is also portrayed in misogynistic terms. Initially, Todd’s sexual exploits with Betty are successful, but Todd’s prowess figures more as a proof of his masculinity in the eyes of his friends than a testament to any emotional bond with her. When at the breakfast nook Dick Bowden inquires about the progress of his dates with Betty, Todd is annoyed by the mere mention of Betty’s name. Todd thinks to himself, “Oh, by the way, did you know your good friend Ray Trask’s daughter is one of the biggest sluts in San Domingo? She’d kiss her own twat if she was double jointed... she’d fuck a dog if she couldn’t get a man.”[39] Betty is portrayed as a hypocrite (and oversexualized Untermensch or Unmensch) who tells her girlfriends she doesn’t “put out” when in reality, “[she] was the kind of girl who fucked on the first date.”[40]

As Todd is increasingly caught up with Dussander, he explicitly begins to despise Betty; not managing to get an erection, he utilizes misogynistic fantasies to “get hard.” In one episode, Todd imagines forcing a crying Betty to strip naked in front of his friends, yelling to her,

Show your tits! Let them see your snatch, you cheap slut! Spread your cheeks! That’s right, bend over and SPREAD them![41]

Given that such sexual control in this film reverberates with the similar Nazi domination of Jews, it is no surprise that on another occasion, Todd invokes the fantasy of raping the young Jewish woman to reach an orgasm. Todd’s misogynistic view of Betty is also expressed in racial terms, most likely prompted by his commerce with Nazism. He begins to wonder if she is a “sheeny” and if the Trasks are “passing for white.”[42]

One look at her nose and that olive complexion—her old man’s was even worse—and you knew. That was probably why he hadn’t been able to get it up. It was simple: his cock had known the difference before his brain.[43]

Finally, Todd begins to wonder if he can’t just dump Betty and boast to his friends that he “fucked ‘er out.”[44]

Todd also defends his masculinity through rape.[45] For instance, in an incident briefly characterized earlier, Todd’s first wet dream takes place after a continual series of nightmares instigated by Dussander’s vivid storytelling: In one dream in a concentration camp laboratory, a young and attractive Jewish woman is bound to a table with clamps. As a “reward” for bringing up his grades at high school, Todd is permitted sexually to assault her with a hollow metal dildo, which is fitted with an electrical cord and placed over Todd’s penis.

The lubricated interior of the dildo pulled and slid against Todd’s engorgement. Delightful. Heavenly.[46]

The narrative’s identificatory structuring clearly places the reader in the position of Todd, who is aroused by the encounter and attains pleasure as he violently penetrates the Jewish woman, but the narrative does not identify with her torment of being violently assaulted. Thus, King’s telling of this incident is all the more misogynistic because it is constructed from the perpetrator’s position, in which the presupposed white masculine reader engages with Todd in “guilty pleasure,” which is characterized by simultaneous repugnance and sexual gratification.[47]

Unlike the descriptions of the relations between Todd and Dussander, where fluctuations across the realms of victimizer (masculinized) and victim (feminized) are allowed, Todd’s and Dussander’s relations to women and to drunk vagrants are aggressively hypermasculinized. The structure of the narrative seems to demand this hypermasculinization in order not to imperil Todd’s and Dussander’s masculinities. This is despite their homoerotic-homophobic interactions which we as spectators look in on, like the child in Freud’s first phase. Such spectatorial interaction grows more complex in Brian Singer’s film version because of the film’s shift in emphasis from misogyny to intermingled registers of homophobia and homoeroticism.

Continued: Novella into film

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