Studio: TriStar Pictures (distributed by Image)
Length: 111 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Languages: English DTS-HD Master 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Film Release Date: October 23, 1998
Disc Release Date: June 7, 2011
Review Date: June 23, 2011
“Do you ever wonder why people do the things they do?”
After the defeat of the Third Reich in World War II, some of those who perpetrated the vile acts managed to escape prosecution and extradition either temporarily, such as Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie, or permanently, as Martin Bormann was suspected by some to have done. Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal spent their lives tracking them down ex-Nazis in order to bring them to justice for their war crimes. With most of the generation that served or controlled the Nazi Party dead or nearing the end of their lives, it is tragic that not all of them could be brought to justice. What is equally tragic is that history often repeats itself. In many ways, history is a study of human nature. Did Nazism simply reflect an ugly side of human nature? Will something just as bad—or worse—happen in the future? And if so, who will perpetrate these acts? And will they be received the same way?
Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a bright 16-year-old who has diligently studied the Nazi Holocaust. When he discovers that a former concentration camp guard named Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen) is living in his town under an assumed name, he goes to him and asks to learn as much as he can about what went on at the death camps. The old man is resistant at first, but Todd threatens to go to the authorities with the evidence he has gathered in his studies unless he cooperates, so he relents. Those around him—his family, his best friend (Joshua Jackson), and his teachers—are unaware of who Dussander really is and what he did, and as Terrorized by images of frail men dying in gas chambers and showers, Todd’s grades slip to the point where his guidance counselor, Edward French (David Schwimmer) intervenes, Kurt tells the counselor that he is Todd’s grandfather in order to prevent his parents from finding out the truth. Mr. French is willing to help negate his bad grades if he gets all A’s in the coming semester, but this ultimately comes with a price. And how will Todd react if Dussander is caught?
Based on a novella by Stephen King, Apt Pupil opened in the fall of 1998 to mixed reviews and disappointing box office, around the same time as the excellent American History X, which was basically the flip side of this film; a repentant white supremacist trying to stop his brother from going down the same path. Apt Pupil could have easily equaled it were it not for a number of flaws that weaken, but don’t totally destroy, the story, even if one can accept that the entire film is built on one coincidence after another. Todd’s initial pursuit of Herr Dusslander is way too rushed; he sees the old man on a bus and recognizes his eyes from an old photo, then after a title reading “one month later”, he finds him. One wishes the film would actually show his initial pursuit of an ex-Nazi. Additionally, the ending resolution lacks the dramatic weight it should have had, partly because Friends star David Schwimmer is way out of his league in a dramatic role. But the film is redeemed by the two excellent central performances and director Bryan Singer’s effectively eerie visual style that keeps the film fascinating even when it is a bit trying. McKellen is often hamstrung by some of the script’s over-the-top depictions of his cruelty, but his incredible range shines through in his performance, and Renfro brings to his role the perfect mix of curiosity, manipulation, and mystery without lapsing into histrionics. The film has more to do with the “why” of Nazism than the “what.” Why did the actions of the Nazis happen? Why is Todd so interested in this ex-Nazi? Why does he engage a dying old man in a sordid chess game? The film hints at Todd’s possible, indeed probable, sympathies with Nazi ideology, as well as similar sociopathic tendencies—and it is the heavy-handedness of those that serves as the film’s biggest weakness—and shows him protecting Dusslander—mainly in order to protect himself—but also shows him constantly threatening to turn Dussander into the authorities. The film asks questions but spells nothing out explicitly.
The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an AVC-encoded transfer with little to complain about. Newton Thomas Sigel’s slick cinematography is well-served, with inky blacks and a tight grain structure that suggests no signs of DNR; all the more impressive since the film was shot in Super 35 and largely in low light with stark shadows. Any softness in the picture is inherent in the film element itself. Colors are subdued but natural overall, leaning to the cool side, although some shots use cold or warm filters for dramatic effect, and those are handled equally well.
The film has a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Track with first-rate fidelity and excellent use of the surrounds thanks to John Ottman’s score and the sound effects.
The DVD had an EPK making-of featurette that sheds only the minimal light on the film’s production and themes. This Blu-Ray retains it and presents here in 480i at a 4x3 ratio. The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p.
Despite its weak setup and occasionally over-the-top nature, Apt Pupil is a chilling, disturbing, and genuinely scary look into the nature of evil, buoyed by two superb central performances and stylish direction. This Blu-Ray adds little insight into its production that it could have gained from participation from the director or the one star still surviving, but its presentation couldn’t be better.