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.
Close up of the male Holocaust victim who stares at Todd through the porthole.
Male victim staring at Todd in the boy’s nightmare.
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.
Pupil’s misogyny, homoeroticism and homophobia:
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. 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).” Richard Plant in The Pink Triangle indicates that the Soviet film, The Fighters (Wangenheim 1936), depicted Nazis as effeminate perverts. 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:
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). 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.” Freud later linked sadism and masochism into a single complimentary “perversion,” sado-masochism.
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. 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):
The second moment is phrased:
And the third moment is phrased:
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,
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.”
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. 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.
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. 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:
Thus, Todd decides to buy Dussander an S.S. uniform, which Dussander does not want to wear but Todd insists firmly.
When Dussander appears in the uniform, Todd is “pleased . . . for the first time Dussander looked to Todd as Todd believed he should look.” 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.
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.
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,” and they “are in this together, sink or swim.” 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?” 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.” Todd imagines having to explain this relationship to his friends:
Both Dussander and Todd strive to reinforce their heterosexual masculine identities by feminizing and victimizing homeless men.
Todd first meets a wino, who offers him sexual favors:
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.
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, 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. Todd’s relation with his mother, Monica Bowden, is just one instance of misogyny. Initially, his mother’s body is consigned to incestuous objectification.
They converse as though age-mates in affectionate idioms such as “Toddy-baby” and “Monica-baby.
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.” 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.”
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,
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.”
Finally, Todd begins to wonder if he can’t just dump Betty and boast to his friends that he “fucked ‘er out.”
Todd also defends his masculinity through rape. 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 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.
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.