8. Archie establishes an eyeline match with Dussander, signifying the derelict’s interest in the older gentleman.

9. Like Todd, Archie first approaches Dussander hesitantly. Then he imposes himself on Dussander, using a similar tactic of potential blackmail.

11. Archie meeting Dussander.

11. The Israeli agent is framed as the center of the boy’s family’s attention. In interrogating Todd and Dussander, the agent-schoolmaster enjoys the dread he fans in his potential victims.

12. As the Israeli agent interrogates Dussander, he is shot from a threatening low angle as he appears from the bedridden old man’s point of view.

13. The Jewish concentration camp survivor peers down at the sleeping Dussander. For a moment, Dussander’s former victim is shot as having the gaze of a potential victimizer.

Novella into film

Boyce’s script and Brian Singer’s film adaptation of Apt Pupil predominantly diminish the novella’s misogynistic threads. In particular, the screenplay excises the novella’s worst misogyny, that in the treatment of Monica, Betty (Becky in the film) and the young Jewish woman.[48] Instead, the film shifts the focus to an ambivalent fluctuation across homophobia and homoeroticism in order to signify monstrosity. The primary source of homoeroticism in the novella— the relationships binding Todd, Denker (Dussander in the film), and the homosexual derelict—remain prominent in the film. In addition, the film intensifies the connection between homophobia and homoeroticism through the visual juxtaposition of Todd’s young and desirable body and the scarred, emaciated and geriatric cadaver-like bodies of male Holocaust victims.

One factor that accentuates homoeroticism in the film adaptation is the proximity between male bodies within both the storyline and imagery. Todd and Dussander are the central characters in the novella, so it is not astonishing that they remain prominent in the film adaptation. In fact, Singer saw this as one particular challenge with Apt Pupil:

The most difficult part of making this film is basically that unlike Usual Suspects, you’re given only two characters... So there aren’t many places to go with the camera and storytelling. [49]

Despite its wide screen format, the film restricts most of the development of Todd (Brad Renfro) and Dussander’s (Ian McKellan) relationship—framed mostly in close-ups[50] —within a crepuscular, dimly lit and claustrophobic bungalow, in which the hidden Nazi lives in obscurity; exceptions are a bus ride, dinner at the Bowden home, and hospital scenes.[51]

This close proximity, framed in close-ups every time Dussander touches Todd,[52] intensifies a homoerotic tension, punctuated by dread of contact with the monstrous, which cannot be attained visually in the novella. Paul Emmons notes the intimidating effect of Dussander’s proximity to Todd:

Kurt slowly approaches Todd as though to embrace [or caress] him, only at the last second turning the gesture into a reach for an object behind the boy.[53]
Homoeroticism in the film is further created by the camera’s gaze on Todd’s body, imagery conveyed in the novella (e.g. the focus on the “moistness” of Todd’s genitals and lower abdominal region)[54] but further explored in the film. Jake Wilson draws attention to a memorable “pin-up shot,” in which, “teenage hunk Brad Renfro [is] sprawled on his bed in his underwear, gazing up at the hovering camera...” [55] Yet the image has another implication: this “pin-up hunk” is very close to an eronemos (beloved)—the “beautiful” boy-man who apprentices under the tutelage of the erastes (lover), and whose mentorship includes sexual initiation. Such a relation, within contemporary mainstream notions about male-male homoerotic relationships, is often construed as dangerously homosexual.

Repeatedly throughout the film, the lighting and ever-encroaching camera fetishize Todd’s youthful body in a way usually used to depict the female body (See Figure 1—overhead shot of Todd, lying naked save for his shorts). Similarly in other scenes throughout the film, Todd’s white face with its mild complexion is fetishistically shot in close-up. In addition, he is given to wandering about without a shirt on.[56] Wilson does not miss the implication of this structuring: “At times it’s hard to say whether deviant sexuality is meant as a metaphor for evil or vice versa, given the film’s fixation on Renfro’s muscular body, pale fine skin, and rosebud lips (held vacuously open, like an actress playing a bimbo).”[57] Stuart Klawans writes in a similar fashion in The Nation:

Apt Pupil devotes a lot of time to hinting that its clear-eyed hero, with his sensitive lips and lithe, hairless torso, might desire something other than the standard-issue girlfriend.[58]

We understand the homoerotic fetishization of Todd’s body as one instance in a trend which depicts Nazism for an assumed white masculine spectator; it is complicit with a looming fear of homophobia, here conflated with the evil of Nazism.

It is interesting that through this depiction, however, that Todd enters the space of Mary Russo’s “monstrous feminine.”[59] That is, far from being the haughty unimperiled predator, he is now simultaneously dangerous and endangered. This is evidenced visually when he dreams that he is looking through a porthole at several naked male Holocaust victims, who stare accusingly at him (See figures 2 and 3—porthole and victim looking at Todd).

Whereas the novella describes Dussander’s transformation from a decrepit old man to a genteel SS officer, the film furnishes an image all too familiar from “imposed make-over” scenes, where one character sadistically coerces another character to dress up/play a part to fulfill his fantasies, seen in such films as Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) or Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961).[60] In the film version of Apt Pupil, Todd’s attempt to transform Dussander is more dominating and voyeuristic than it was in the novella; there Todd solicits Dussander to put on the uniform and when Dussander resists, Todd grumbles about how he has saved all summer to afford it and shakes his head at Dussander’s pleas. By contrast, in the film, Todd threatens to betray Dussander to the Israelis and shouts,

I tried to do this the nice way, but you don’t want it. So fine, we’ll do this the hard way. You will put this on, because I want to see you in it. Now move!

Note that the editing style here creates juxtaposition, so that we view Dussander in the SS uniform and then anticipate Todd’s reaction. A mobile camera is employed to show Todd’s emotional response to Dussander’s arousing appearance. Whereas Todd as a subject is lit with an apparently natural light source, Dussander as the object of the gaze is side-lit with an expressionistic blue lighting. Finally, a comparison of camera angles between shots reveals that Todd’s reaction shots are predominantly from a low-angle, which make him look more powerful. These visual choices enhance sexual difference between the characters in a way that is parallel to the heterosexual, institutional cinematic construction of sexual difference between men and women. The composition of the images (Todd as looker, Dussander as fetishistic object) and the relation of camera angles renders the scene as sadomasochistically homoerotic. This effect occured despite Singer’s claim that,

For some strange reason, some weird reason, shooting him from the lower angle, where normally you would think the character would be empowered, up on high, made Brad weaker.[61]

The term “sadomasochistic” is appropriate only if the “bottom,” in this case, Dussander, consents to his humiliation by the “top,” in this case, Todd. As Williams and several sociologists analyzing masochism argue,[62] the pleasures of sadomasochistic pornography (in which Apt Pupil partakes) depend on its contractuality—that is, the top somehow never exceeds the boundaries set by the bottom. Through “careful timing, the suspense and anxiety of prolonged suffering, delayed consummations, surprise gestures of either cruelty or tenderness..., frequent role-playing, and inversions of hierarchies,”[63] actually aids the bottom to achieve the erotic peaks s/he desires, thus leaving open the issue of who really controls the situation. Williams cites Robert Stoller’s psychoanalysis of a masochistic female patient, whose recurring fantasies of hyper-dramatized pain and humiliation during sex Stoller diagnosed as a camouflage which she used in order to justify to a fantasized (superego) audience her apparent protests against this kind of relation. Yet the hyperbolic nature of the fantasy for Stoller, which Williams adopts in her analysis of spectatorial relations in particularly aesthetic sadomasochistic films, unveils how the bottom’s apparent helplessness in entering into this relation allows her (since the bottom is fantasized as feminized, even if it is a male body) to maintain the integrity of the “good girl/bad girl” dichotomy while ultimately attaining the pleasures of the “bad girl.”[64] Williams also astutely points out that such a staged gesture of utter submission becomes subversive or a “devious act of defiance” more easily for a male body than a female body, because submissiveness within a patriarchal context is configured as the “natural” stance of femininity.

In relation to Apt Pupil, therefore, we can argue that Todd’s coercion and humiliation of Dussander are the means through which Dussander realizes his secret desires. Later when Dussander reverses these power relations by posing as Todd’s compassionate grandfather, Todd reveals his complicity when he refuses to confide the truth to Edward French, the guidance counselor—who the film hints may also be drawn homoerotically to Todd. Todd seems to acknowledge that his fantasies of power and eroticism can only be hetero-cosmically envisaged through Dussander’s hypermasculinity, as opposed to the figure of French, who seems effete. That is, Todd, consents to becoming the “bottom” only to Dussander’s “top” because it is Dussander who can best fulfill his fantasies. Todd and we the audience, looking predominantly through his eyes, desire not only to be the beaters (Freud’s first stage) but also to be the beaten (Freud’s second stage), which explains the frisson and fascination of the film’s homoerotic-homophobic liaison in which we vicariously and visually partake.

Interestingly, this same scene in which Todd displays unrelenting command over Dussander is also the scene in which Todd begins to lose his control over the monstrous Nazi machine he has awakened. As Todd cries, “Stop,” Dussander marches more fervently as if possessed by an innate force that goads him on. What follows is a rapid series of shot/reverse shots between Todd and Dussander in which both characters are framed in close-up, thus radically rupturing the visual structure of power. By the end of this scene, Dussander in close-up warns Todd, “Boy, be careful, you play with fire!” Todd is finally rendered powerless as the scene ends with his baffled and apprehensive face in reaction shot. (See figures 4 & 5—final close ups of Todd and Dussander in the “dress up” scene). This scene once again visualizes pure, inherent evil as Nazism—embodied in Dussander’s aging body, now reanimated by the simulacrous force of a costume masquerading as a uniform. Yet that embodiment of evil is also somehow constructed as glamorous, desirable, and intoxicatingly powerful.

This inversion of the power relation affects Todd’s sexual and academic life. As Todd McCarthy explains,

For his part, Todd is now so preoccupied by Nazi evil that he can no longer perform sexually and shortly sees his outstanding grades decline to a level that threatens his chances for college.[65]

However, the novella and film differ about what constitutes Todd’s sexual abnormality. In the novella, Todd begins to have misogynistic dreams, one of which includes the rape of a restrained and tortured Jewish woman, described earlier. The film replaces the rape scene with a shower scene, in which Todd witnesses his schoolmates transforming into homoerotically-homophobically coded Holocaust victims. The beginning of the shower scene looks like the homoerotic shower scenes in the sports film genre (part of the “masculine” sports subplot for Todd’s all American boy persona). The scene frames the boys mostly frontally, above the waist and from the back, in medium longshot. It is precisely in the transition to the Holocaust fantasy that the cinematic style moves into fetishism and horror.

Using blues and darker tones in digital colorization, now older Holocaust victims are shot in the way women in showers are usually shot with the camera panning, in close-up, across erotically charged parts of their bodies, such as their chests, which they rub as they gaze upon Todd through the shower’s “night and fog.” The scene turns into horror, given that the victims’ bodies are coded as monstrous with emaciation and scars. The background music immediately signals to the audience that an encounter with the Holocaust victims is just as terrifying and fascinating as an encounter with the Nazis. Thus, we observe a sexualized past and present here represented in not only different colorization and style in a manner comparable to Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) but also with shifting registers across sports genre, “acceptable” homoeroticism, Holocaust imagery, and homophobia.

This second shower-gas chamber scene is ripe with references to both the gas chambers of the Holocaust and Marion’s lethal shower in Psycho as well as Carrie’s shower scene—shower scenes being staples in Holocaust and horror films. It is described in the following way in Boyce’s script:

Writhing bodies, thin, malnourished. These are bodies he has seen before. The room is darker, concrete. The steam rises. Or is it steam? Smoke, thick smoke, surrounds him. The voices of the boys are more like screams.[66]

Significantly, there are no overtly naked old men who are described in the passage cited above, only “thin and malnourished” ones. Yet the film visualizes the grotesque geriatric body under a prominently lustful gaze. Once again, as in the earlier shower scene, the camera shots, musical motif, and background sounds repeatedly link Todd to the old man—as monstrous gazers and victims of the voyeuristic gaze.

The production of this scene resulted in a lawsuit, which alleged that Singer and his crew forced teenage actors, who play Todd’s classmates, to perform in the nude.[67] Though the case was eventually dismissed due to insufficient evidence, the charge of pedophilic exploitation haunted the film’s release when the Women’s Coalition, an organization representing some of the teenage actors involved in the case, staged a press conference in order to exert public pressure on the Screen Actors Guild to arbitrate the case.[68] Christian Leopold Shea comments,

This [shower scene] coupled with a statement by Dussander, in which he hisses that he and Todd ‘are fucking each other’... has led some, including the attorneys for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against director Singer and the production company, to allege that Singer deliberately turned the story into one with a strong homosexual subtext. [69]

The last of the film’s gas chamber/shower sequences establishes a subtle but significant departure from the novella and the script. The novella describes Todd’s murderous anger at having been blackmailed by Dussander posing as his cunning “grandfather” into slaving over books in an attempt to save his plummeting grades . As he bikes home, Todd is described as “washed out, hot-eyed, drained, impotently angry.”[70] The film script envisages a scene in which the obsessively angry Todd slips from his bike and flails wildly at thorny, whip-like vines that appear to threaten to consume him.

Todd is freaking out. The music builds. Voices we have heard before come in... The thorns cut into him. The more he flails, the more the briars slap against him. Finally, he tears free of the briars. He climbs back up the treacherous hill and retrieves his bike. Exhausted and bloodied, Todd rides away.[71]
Though the final film stays true to the emotional temperament and many of the details of the script, it adds one significant detail. In this scene as Todd looks up, seen from his point of view, the overhanging arc of the tunnel that he has crashed into appears mist-filled, like a gas chamber. Then an extreme close-up reveals the Nazi swastika. Todd scrambles off with his bike in a frenzied manner. In the scene as filmed, Todd moves unambiguously into the victim position, unlike in the earlier “shower-gas chamber” scenes in which there is a fluctuation across the roles of victimizer and victim.

But the dynamics of the narrative soon move Todd out of that utterly feminized position. In another change from novella to film, Todd’s continual encounters with Betty Trask are reduced to a single rendezvous with Becky (Heather McComb) in which he cannot perform sexually.[72] In King’s novella, the reader can actively recognize a cause and effect relationship between Todd and Dussander’s homoerotic liaison and Todd’s progressively impotent interactions with Betty. In the novella, Todd ameliorates his impotence through misogyny, imagining that Betty is a Jewess, a concentration camp inmate whom he can rape and torture.

However, in the film adaptation, there can be no mistaking the connection between sexual abnormality and Nazism because of the crosscutting between kinds of scenes. In addition, sexual abnormality is now more generally coded as homoerotic (fascinating) and homophobic (monstrous or aberrant). In the film, Todd merely claims he is not in the mood and lets Becky assume he “doesn’t like girls.” The film then provides an implied answer to why Todd cannot perform “normally” by crosscutting to show Dussander shoving a cat into an oven—a rather trite metonymic reference to the thirteen million humans who were slaughtered in concentration camps and cremated in ovens.[73] Later, the film implies Dussander’s eventual success when a poster showing that the cat is missing becomes part of the mise-en-scene. Similarly, Todd’s killing of a wounded bird by crushing it underneath a basketball he viciously dribbles is construed as mimicking Dussander’s monstrous impulses and venal crimes. Denerstein remarks:

He tries to throw a stray cat into his oven, thus proving that the old instinct to gas living creatures dies hard. Bowden develops a sadistic side, too. At one point, he crushes a pigeon with a basketball.[74]

Again, these scripted incidents show how the novella’s misogynistic structure is transformed one based on a combination of homoeroticism and homophobia.

Late in the film Todd and Dussander have a drink to the “beginning and the end of their relationship.” It seems that everything might return to “normal” heterosexuality for Todd. Now follows a “Hollywood montage” time-lapse sequence, which reveals the following details: 1) Todd is successful in pitching a shutout baseball game, in which the editorial inter-cutting shows Becky encouraging him with applause. 2) Todd competes like a professional at basketball practice and once again gains the admiration of his coach. 3) Todd enjoys himself thoroughly on a date at the movie theatre with Becky where they enjoy each other’s company and share a box of popcorn. 4) This indulgence of “normality” becomes destabilized by the presence of a man seated a few rows in front of them who resembles—and cackles like—Dussander. 5) The inescapability of Dussander’s curse lingers throughout the sequence as coded by the background score, “Das ist Berlin.”

In the meantime, Dussander has begun to recapture a sense of identity that he has lost for quite some time. Whereas in the novella it is clear that Dussander is too old for sex,[75] the film directly shows a correlation between his wearing the SS costume and expressing a homosexual identity. In one scene, at nighttime Dussander stands before the mirror in the SS costume fingering the buttonholes. (See Figure 6: Dussander in front of the mirror.) In close-up, he puts on his hat and begins caressing his face, then his neck; the camera tilts on his hand as it progresses down the jacket and his other hand moves down below his waist. In medium shot, Dussander stands narcissistically in front of mirror, grasping at his crotch. This moment is disturbed when he hears a derelict, Archie (Elias Koteas), outside rummaging through a trashcan.

If the succession of murdered gay derelicts presented in the novella serves to reaffirm Todd and Dussander’s masculine heterosexuality, the single derelict in the film, Archie (who appears in the second or extended shower sequence), serves a similar purpose. However, in its visual structuring of eye-line matches the film evokes homoeroticism in a more powerful way. A further scene that uses eye-line matches in a similar way is the bus scene, in which Dussander is returning from the liquor store and again notices Archie, who is amorously gazing at him. Curiously, that scene is not in Boyce’s original script. In the script’s scene 62,

Dussander emerges from a liquor store carrying two bags.

Then in the scene immediately following, 63,

Dussander steps off the bus and plods down the sidewalk with his sacks of groceries.[76]

Thus, the final bus scene has been fashioned in keeping with the homoeroticism of an omitted scene from the script in which Archie sits uneasily near to Dussander on a bus stop bench.[77] (See figures 7 and 8: Archie making eye contact with Dussander; Archie offering to help Dussander.)

In this scene in the film, the shot/reverse shot editing, eye-line match and rack focus implicate Dussander and Archie in a homoerotic division of glances in which a presumed male heterosexual spectator might identify with Dussander’s homophobic discomfort. Singer recognizes this as a potential reaction,[78] but we believe that he minimizes the extent to which Archie is meticulously coded as gay. Indeed, both the scene in which Archie approaches Dussander in the street and the one in which they drink in Dussander’s bungalow are designed to emphasize Archie’s homosexuality. In the street, Archie assures Dussander,

You don’t... There’s no reason to be rude. I know something about you. I know you're a nice guy. I'm nice too. Just like the boy.

He then invites himself in for a drink and offers,

Maybe you’ll let me use your shower, but first a drink. And then I’ll do anything you say.

As Dussander shifts his eyes and motions towards his bungalow, the Liebestod motif from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde enters on the sound track. The use of Wagner, of course, alludes to Nazism, but the motif of Liebestod—a love death—ties this sequence to a Romantic tradition of tragic love, of which Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a major expression. The music thus emphasizes more intensely the implication of a monstrous homoeroticism between Dussander and Archie than the “soft music” suggested in Boyce’s script.[79]

The strains of Liebestodmotivate a cut to the interior of Dussander’s bungalow, where the two share a drink of bourbon. Soon, Dussander begins to stroke Archie’s face and hair with his hand as he asks, “Do you mind?” “No, not at all,” replies Archie. Archie solicits,

You know maybe in the morning, after everything goes o.k., you can let me have ten dollars... Maybe even twenty... You can relax, you know. I’ve done this before.

Now Dussander, knife in hand, moves behind the wino and rubs the unsuspecting Archie’s head, responding, “That’s all right, so have I.” Richard Scheib correctly observes,

The sensual pleasure with which McKellan caresses and then slits Koteas’s throat [is] something that Koteas takes to be a homosexual caress.[80]

In this way, the poor man Archie is viciously circumscribed as sexually promiscuous and abnormal and therefore designated as a justified victim of Dussander, who plunges the knife into the wino’s back. First, as a homoerotic object, wearing what appears to be a woman’s sweater and scarf and offering sexual favors,[81] Archie serves as a scapegoat for Dussander’s gender anxiety, a victim through whom the old Nazi can reaffirm his masculinity. Second, Archie’s class status as a transient renders him an Untermensch, which makes his death both justifiable and insignificant. When Todd arrives, Dussander manipulates him into finishing off Archie, actualizing Todd’s fantasy of knowing “what it feels like.” Now not only are the two joined vis-à-vis the apparently vehement embrace of a traditional homophobic injunction, but also by the justification of their continuing their solidarity, confirmed by this secret and subversive blurring of the boundaries between homoeroticism and homosexuality.[82]

Hunter and hunted

There is one apparently minor character whose role in the narrative we must examine in order to understand our own viewing pleasures in the film’s unfolding of its sadomasochistic tableaux of rituals within rituals. This character, the Israeli school teacher-agent who relentlessly hunts down Nazis, gives our superegos a narrative entry point. His perspective seems to promise objectivity and the transcendence of the guilty and reflexive moments in the film in which we are haunted by our identifications with Todd and Dussander. However, a closer analysis of the film reveals that the Israeli hunter is just as coldly determined and charmingly ruthless as Todd and Dussander. In his interrogations of the victimizers turned (potential) victims, it is clear that he relishes Todd’s discomfort at finding himself under the scrutiny of not only an agent but more importantly of a discerning school teacher used to the tricks of “naughty boys.” Similarly, the agent enjoys the dread he fans in the bedridden and drugged Dussander by refusing to identify himself overtly or the agency for which he works. He allows the visual iconography of the small star of David that he wears on his lapel and the power of the unstated to strike greater fear in the captured Nazi. (Figures 9 and 10: the Israeli agent interviewing Todd and Dussander). Yet another appealing figure to whom we are initially strongly drawn becomes unmasked as yet another aspect of the monstrous. His “righteousness” lies in such proximity to his vengefulness that it becomes yet another expression of masked sadism. And this civilized sadism is a thin veneer for the sublimated masochism that rules how he lives his life; as he ruefully hints to a colleague, he now spends his time obsessively and sacrificially (albeit not without its peculiar pleasures) “chasing old men” as opposed to the girls he could pursue in his younger days.

A Jewish camp survivor is the person who realizes that the grandfatherly figure in the cot next to his at the hospital is the “monster of Patin,” but that character, too, is both frightening and sympathetic. His eyes widen and an expression of cunning pervades his face as he sneaks over to peer down at the sleeping Dussander; the background music codes this as a moment of building tension. (See Figure 11: the Jewish survivor looking at the sleeping Dussander) For a moment, we consider that this other grandfatherly figure may be out to kill the unsuspecting sleeper but that moment passes swiftly. The camera then reveals the sick man’s subjective point of view as he stumbles away in horror from Dussander’s bed; the camera also shows his arm in a close-up, revealing the tattooed number and the necessary facts of his identity. He collapses unsteadily into a nurse’s arms, clutching at her and crying desperately. Though he has not succumbed to the temptation of killing his former tormentor and the murderer of his family, he has even if only for a moment shared the voyeur’s and killer’s gaze.

The line between victimizer (sadist) and victim (masochist) is thin for the film’s male characters. Todd, Dussander, the derelict, and the guidance counselor, Ed French all negotiate fluid borders between power and powerlessness—one minute authorized by the potential for blackmail and then in the next instance rendered vulnerable, even expendable. All of these characters move through the narrative pattern of sexually charged fascination with power; a desire to probe more deeply; a situation of danger, which the character tries to overcome through a bid for total mastery; and then the reversal of a dramatic gambit which leads the victimizer to become a victim.

In contrast to the film’s narrative structure, the novella ends differently. There Todd does not graduate as the class valedictorian; after killing Ed French, he goes on a shooting rampage until the SWAT team guns him down. In the film Todd triumphantly graduates as valedictorian and successfully blackmails his former guidance counselor, Ed French, whom he threatens to accuse of pedophilia (thus rendering overt the homoerotic possibilities hinted at in both novella and film). The film’s final scenes crosscut between Dussander’s escape from his captors by suicide and Todd’s escape from French by blackmail, in which he repeats some of the lines Dussander himself had used in order to counter-blackmail Todd into submission earlier: “[A scandal like] this will never go away, not for you.” The film ends with a dimly lit close-up of the dead Dussander’s steely-eyed gaze; it is clear that Dussander’s spirit lives on through Todd. In other words, while the novella ends like a classic horror film in which the monster has been successfully vanquished (at least until its next reincarnation), the film ends like a contemporary or “postmodern” Gothic narrative in which the monster lives and is unveiled as part of ourselves rather than an alien force out there.

This postmodern Gothic ending is crucial to understanding the complex and ambivalent spectatorial pleasures a film like Apt Pupil may enable us to indulge in as vicarious participants in the action. If we reflect on those pleasures, we might conclude that our identifying with Todd and Dussander as alternating victims and victimizers let us occupy the emotional positions of beater and beaten. That is, as with Freud’s voyeuristic child, part of the strange pleasures a film like Apt Pupil affords us is the recognition that we can vicariously occupy both the feminized space of the child being beaten and the masculinized space of the beater.

This act of sadomasochistic film viewing is also enabled by the ritualistic nature of vicarious role-playing, with which we may dramatize, use, or interpret historical/social reality. Just as the subject status is substituted with another subject in beating fantasies, so too can the relations and conditions of the present enter into our sexualized fantasies. Citing Theodor Reik’s work on masochism, film theorist Kaja Silverman notes how within the beating fantasy, role-players often participate in the disavowal of national, racial, and historical settings, usually in the guise of sacrificial scenes of “primitives” in which the male sees other men offered up for castration and sacrifice to the gods.[83] This process of disavowal is the hetero-cosmic impulse with which the subject fleshes out the contours of his/hersexual fantasy, unconsciously taking into account either the essential concern in such fantasies with subject-positioning and gender “roles”[84] or the person’s need “to segregate the S&M situation from everyday life [by] … keying … culturally general resources.”[85] In employing the costumes and mise-en-scene of Nazism, the world in which the beatings occur becomes an “other,” a “barbaric” universe of regalia, concentration camps and gas chambers.[86] Thus, not only can we participate and witness torture imagining ourselves next in line; we also can transform our own age, historical moment and cultural subjectivity into a Nazi masquerade.

In the film’s ambiguous ending, the monstrous not only runs free but is also part of us. One could argue that part of the frisson of watching films like Apt Pupil and The Night Porter which juxtapose Grand Guignol with the Holocaust and sexualized torture narratives is that these visualize “the problematic acceptance of the ‘enemy,’ meant at once as other than ourselves, as a psychological reality in itself and as a specular image of the heart of darkness within us.”[87] Yet it is important to note that such an argument seems effective only in so far as it applies to the white male heterosexual point of view (as it does in both the novella and film versions of Apt Pupil). As Williams notes:

Male masochism reflects oedipal law and subverts it at the same time. To Silverman . . ., an important aspect of this subversion lies in its construction of a ‘feminine’ yet heterosexual male subject.[88]

It is more difficult to construct masochism as a subversive gesture when one employs a female body because masochism’s stance of passivity and vulnerability is “naturalized” as feminine.

The pattern Williams describes certainly fits Apt Pupil, with its construction of monstrosity from the porous perspectives of two feminized yet heterosexual male subjects, who alternate between victim and victimizer, against the backdrops of misogyny and homoeroticism-homophobia. That claim is harder to make of a movie like The Night Porter, over which a furious debate rages as to whether or not this is a film from a woman’s point of view.[89] The director Liliana Cavani is a woman and therefore may be trying to present deeper and unsettling truths about the female human condition), or the narrative focus may still be primarily about Max’s fantasy-nightmare (Max, played by Dirk Bogarde, is Nazi officer turned hotel night porter) and that Lucia (Max’s former “little girl” at the concentration camp, played by Charlotte Rampling, turned bourgeois wife to a famous conductor) is problematically constructed by the narrative as complicit with him.[90]

Ultimately, the narrative and spectatorial dynamics in Apt Pupil, the film, seems best described in the following way. The script tries to construct yet another clear binary between characters who are perpetrator and victim, linked to the heterosexual binary of masculine (perpetrator) and feminine (victim). Yet, this attempted construct is itself fraught with tensions. The male characters move across sadistic and masochistic positions (a movement denied to female characters) and across homophobia and homoeroticism (also denied to female characters). Thus, the film wrestles with the all too familiar theme of endangered masculinity. To cover over this problematic, in a move parallel to making women in slasher films hysterical so that men can be allowed to be terrified or feminized without the narrative’s threatening their masculinity, as theorized by Carol Clover, Apt Pupil constructs femininity as passive in order to form the right backdrop for this narrative of masculine endangerment. Yet what is unique to Apt Pupil is that hypermasculinity (both Todd and Dussander have to possess properties of the Übermensch to be able to get away with what they do) is constructed as covert identification with the feminine—and emerges as an instantiation of the monstrous which is not out there but resides within us.