In 1980, one of the most fantastic, unbelievable stories came to national media attention. Three 19-year-old men in the New York City area discovered each other through pure coincidence, learning that they were identical triplets, separated and adopted shortly after birth. They became briefly famous, viral before viral was even a thing. That story, along with a brief epilogue, would have made for a very satisfying short documentary, one worthy of Oscar consideration next year.
However, director Tim Wardle, in his first major feature doc (co-produced by CNN and Channel 4, where he’s done some great work in the UK), has presented an even more improbable tale of these unknown brothers with Three Identical Strangers, showing us not only the larger than life story of these triplets, but also taking us down unexpected, disturbing rabbit holes to figure out how their situation could have even happened in the first place. Through the use of recreation, creative editing, and standard interviews, Wardle gives us one of the most unique and compelling documentaries of the year.
The initial story plays out like a modern fairy tale or body swap movie. In 1980, Robert Shafran, then 19 years old, heads to a small community college outside New York City for his first year studies. However, everyone there greets him super affectionately, as if they know him. Some even start calling him, “Eddy.” Sure enough, he runs into someone who sees him as the exact double of his friend, Eddy Galland, who had been a student there the year before. Bobby and Eddy meet, and discover that they’re identical twins. When their story is run in the local papers, a third brother, David Kellman, emerges. Together, these long lost triplets take the world by storm, partying, appearing on talk shows (notably Phil Donahue), and even getting a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan. Literally, with every new reveal my girlfriend excitedly whispered, “No fucking way!”
Meanwhile, the boys’ adoptive parents are furious, seeking answers from the now defunct Louise Wise adoption agency. The board members they meet with mollify them by saying that twins and triplets are hard to place together. One parent notes that upon leaving, he overheard the board popping champagne as if they had just dodged a bullet. Something is clearly not right here.
And this is where the documentary goes from good to great. Like last year’s Documentary Feature winner, Icarus, a truly great doc of this magnitude will follow the story wherever it leads. As such, things take a very sudden, nefarious left turn, as we find out exactly how and why the boys were separated. Dr. Peter Neubauer, an Austrian psychiatrist, conducted a nature vs. nurture study in identical twins and triplets in conjunction with the Wise agency (then a highly influential institution for New York elites and the Jewish community, which left it almost invulnerable to criticism), intentionally making sure they were adopted apart from each other, to see if their behavioral patterns would be influenced by their genetics or their upbringings in various family environments.
The triplets were among the biggest assets to that experiment. It didn’t go unnoticed that Bobby was raised in a well-off family, Eddy in a middle class family, and David in a blue collar household. All of them also had older adopted sisters, so the families themselves were well established and vetted by the agency. Further, there’s evidence to suggest that twins and triplets born to mothers with mental illness were targeted to see if those problems would also be inherited.
This has disturbing implications on so many levels. First, given that Neubauer was a Holocaust survivor, it boggles the mind that he would engage in such a dehumanizing social engineering experiment, especially with other Jewish kids. I mean, this is some Nazi shit right here, and it didn’t seem to faze him (he died in 2008, having never published his study). Further, even if you concede the admittedly fascinating hypothesis, you’ve robbed these boys – and several others – of a full third of their lives together.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that humans are self-aware, meaning the methodology of his approach is inherently – and fatally – flawed. It’s one thing to be a rat in a maze. It’s quite another to realize that you are that rat. It makes you question everything. Is your entire life a mere construct for others? What parts of your life were your own free will, and what parts were engineered? This is why such an experiment is not only inhumane, but impossible. Neubauer wanted to see if mental illness could be inherited, but in finding out about the experiment, the subjects themselves develop existential issues, which in themselves can lead to mental illness, thus tainting the results.
The boys, now in their 50s (and looking a bit like Harvey Levin of TMZ – IS THERE A QUADRUPLET?!?!?!?!?!?!?!), go from telling lighthearted anecdotes in interviews to contemplating their entire existence, and it’s amazing to watch their faces as they pore over these very tough questions that they should have never had to face. There’s similar exploration about another pair of twins, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who wrote the memoir, “Identical Strangers,” which informs 2/3 of the film’s title, but it’s limited in scope and arguably just there to justify the use of title and pad the runtime a bit. Their story is no less important, but it carries less narrative weight, a creative choice that mars the movie’s quality ever so slightly.
The other great element is the editing, as Wardle likes to constantly call back to sound bites and archival footage to piece things together, sometimes to illustrate a major point, other times to potentially posit on a conclusion to Neubauer’s experiment. For example, the boys’ personalities and mannerisms turned out to be a lot alike, and in their initial 15 minutes of fame, added to their charm. Again, this is what made their story entertaining on its face, worthy of a short documentary. But they admit that a lot of it was played up for the cameras, and most of the things people harped on were superficial anyway, like smoking the same brand of cigarettes or being attracted to older women.
It’s one of the few times a movie – especially a documentary – can have it both ways. You can make an argument for nature, because in many fun ways the boys turned out the same despite being raised separately, but on the other hand you can make an equally strong case for nurture, as we learn in the specific case of one triplet’s fate. Either way, it’s undeniable that what began as a jovial story of friendship and family for the triplets turned into them being used as pawns in a larger game they never signed up for.
Again, for the first half of this movie, I thought to myself what a great short it would be, but as Wardle went down the rabbit hole, things got more complex, more disturbing, more compelling, more tragic, and ultimately, more fascinating. In an odd way the film almost makes a larger statement against the idea of viral fame. If you just scratch the surface, you might find something fun and exciting, but the deeper story is always the better one if you can commit your attention long enough to find it. Tim Wardle has done just that, and now the boys and their friends and family (and journalists) are doing that as well, continuing the search for the truth about themselves and anyone else who might be unaware of family out there.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What would you do if you found out you had a long lost twin? Who wonders if they’re adopted now? Let me know!