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Apt Pupil (1998)

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A boy blackmails his neighbor after suspecting him to be a Nazi war criminal.



(novel), (screenplay)
6 wins & 6 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Sociology Teacher
Nightmare Victim
Agnes Bowden
David Cooley ...
Gym Teacher
Blake Anthony Tibbetts ...
Katherine Malone ...
Grace Sinden ...


Neighborhood boy Todd Bowden (Renfro) discovers that an old man living on his block named Arthur Denker (Mackellan) is Nazi war criminal. Bowden confronts Denker and offers him a deal: Bowden will not go to the authorities if Denker tells him stories of the concentration camps in WWII. Denker agrees and Bowden starts visiting him regularly. The more stories Bowden hears, the more it affects his personality. Written by Casey Ward <ward@citizen.infi.net>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


If you don't believe in the existence of evil, you've got a lot to learn.


Crime | Drama | Thriller

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for scenes of strong violence, language and brief sexuality | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:







Release Date:

23 October 1998 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

El aprendiz  »

Filming Locations:



Box Office


$14,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$3,583,151, 25 October 1998, Wide Release

Gross USA:

$8,838,938, 3 January 1999
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

(8 channels)|



Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
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Did You Know?


Sir Ian McKellen later claimed that Dussander's accent was very difficult to master, since Dussander was supposed to have been living in California for decades speaking English, and trying to suppress his German accent. See more »


Kurt Dussander, upon receiving his uniform given by Bowden, commented on how he received a "promotion". The new rank was that of a field officer; a Lieutenant Colonel (Americanized version; German version is Oberstleutnant SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer). The SS insignia was always on the right collar, the other on the left. This occurs just after 30 minutes into the movie. About 52 minutes into the movie, the collar position of the insignia changes collars; the "SS" is now on the left collar, the other on the right. This mistake escapes many of us due to the fact we are seeing him looking at himself in a mirror, and so it seems to make sense. The truth is, of course, despite the use of a mirror, right is still right, and left is still left. See more »


[Todd knocks on Dussander's door]
Kurt Dussander: Yes? What do you want?
Todd Bowden: I...
Kurt Dussander: If you're selling something, I'm not interested.
Todd Bowden: I have your newspaper.
[Dussander opens the door of his porch to take the newspaper]
Todd Bowden: I'm not selling anything.
Kurt Dussander: Then what do you want?
Todd Bowden: If you could let me in for a minute, I just want to talk.
Kurt Dussander: Talk? I don't have anything to say to you, boy. Good day to you.
See more »


Featured in Hollywood's Top Ten: Stephen King Movies (2011) See more »


Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)
Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
Performed by Ian McKellen
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User Reviews

Interesting tale of cat and mouse based on the idea that someone can become obsessed with a certain text.
26 April 2008 | by See all my reviews

The underlying theme Apt Pupil maintains throughout is attention to texts and attention to texts that can inspire and influence but for all the wrong reasons. Apt Pupil does not have a set up; it jumps right into its narrative from the very beginning as close to perfect student Todd Bowden (Renfro) sits there having gone through a lecture on the infamous Holocaust that took place during the 1930s and 40s in Central and Eastern Europe. Todd looks disturbed and yet intrigued at the same time; the opening credits roll after the teacher rubs out 'Jews' written on the chalk board, with the credits doubling up as a montage as Todd goes deeper and deeper into the history of the Holocaust and picks up on lots of information.

From here, Todd has had his mind polluted with a text he has done every attempt to read up on and is now in a different sort of mindset but since we did not know him before the film started, it is his psyche that has been attributed to him. Similarly to the American couple who went on a spree after seeing Badlands; similarly to the French couple who shot and robbed a liquor store after seeing Natural Born Killers and similarly to the hoodlums in Britain who dressed up and beat tramps after seeing A Clockwork Orange, media texts and texts in general can inspire and influence. Todd's story is a study of this and it become doubly dangerous when he realises local neighbour Kurt Dussander (McKellan) is an ex-Nazi in hiding.

From this intriguing set up comes a film that unfolds at a satisfying pace, delivers shocks and the odd surprise whilst maintaining a healthy amount of suspense. The film spends most of its first third informing us that the Holocaust was a 'bad thing' with its trailing off of stories that Kurt delivers to Todd and its dream sequences that Todd must endure. But at the same time, this only further emphasises Todd's fascination and displays how vulnerable he really is. There are two scenes in which Todd hallucinates about the Holocaust; one of which is when he is peering into a window at a dying Jew who cries out for help but Todd awakes in a cold sweat – he didn't enjoy it. The second of which takes place in the shower when he imagines he is a Jew himself. But he snaps out of it and pants in relief it's over.

These reactions display fear and anxiety toward such visions but it is not long before he is treating friends like dirt, participating in animal cruelty and wanting to witness first hand a Nazi drill from the real thing. There are two symmetrical scenes during which both Todd and Kurt partake in animal cruelty emphasising that Todd is perhaps entering the mindset of a Nazi whilst one who has already been there and been one also tries his hand at animal cruelty – disturbingly fitting how it involved an oven. But at this point, Todd has already bordered on the insane since his readings of the subject and the stories of the ex-Nazi have deterred him from the straight and narrow; it echoes the scene in Taxi Driver when Travis pretends to 'shoot' the porn stars on the screen in the cinema – he has seen the filth and the bare bones of the subject first hand and is now building up a fascination; albeit and 'anti' fascination as opposed to Todd's fascination which makes him want to hurt, upset and maim.

And so as the film progresses, so does the intrigue and the deception. One of the films more memorable scenes involves a homeless man who for one reason or another gets in on the blackmail and believes he'll be permitted to stay at Kurt's house given a twist that occurs. Kurt may have other ideas and the scene in which he strokes the man's bald head (probably echoing the way he did for the Jews following their head shaving) is tense and unnerving. But the student/pupil relationship takes a bizarre route and Todd buys Kurt a uniform, demanding to see him in it and demanding a performance – I don't think there is much of a homo-erotic 'gaze' that follows but there is certainly a lot more 'I'll look out for you, you look out for me' emphasis and everything gets a little more 'touchy-feely' if you know what I mean.

Despite, in my opinion, one of the biggest mis-castings in a film from last decade; David Schwimmer turns up with a silly looking moustache and some tacky looking glasses and plays a school counsellor. His presence adds another ingredient to the boiling pot but just when the game looks up in a forgettable scene, Todd is quite literally saved by the bell. Then there are the lingering close ups of the handshakes, the creepy smile and those eyes behind those glasses – is there something we should know? Apt Pupil is engaging and good fun for what it is but there are some sloppy scenes and some incidental occurrences but what good there is, is either nerve jangling, tense or unpredictable.

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