In what more closely resembles a melodramatic mystery than reality, Tim Wardle’s (“One Killer Punch”) shocking documentary breaks conventions in style and tone to tell a true story that can only be described as jaw-dropping. “Three Identical Strangers” tells the story of identical triplets, Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman, separated at birth and placed into three different homes. Their reunion led them to become global sensations, appearing on TV shows and even checking out Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The three brothers even opened a restaurant together in New York City, not surprisingly dubbed “Triplets.” What seems like a happily-ever-after type of tale twists itself into a dark nightmarish saga of deception, experimentation and loss as the nature of the triplets’ adoption becomes more clear.
The documentary combines home videos with talking heads footage alongside tastefully shadowed re-enactments. The re-enactments are not forced; rather, they create a narrative as twisted as the reality the triplets faced. In a way, the re-enactments make the story feel more fictional, played by curly-headed lookalikes of the triplets clad in striped polos and flared jeans. The triplets’ first-hand accounts of their story emphasize the reality of it, reminding the viewer that the film before them is unfortunately not fiction at all. Sooner rather than later, the viewer might notice the absence of one-third of the triplets. While Shafran and Kellman have a lot to say in their interviews, Galland is mysteriously not present. As the film progresses, the viewer will come to understand the dark nature of Galland’s absence.
The film slowly unravels the mystery of the triplets’ separation keeping the viewer engrossed until the very last minute. What is uncovered is the fact that the triplets were separated for the purpose of scientific study. A psychiatrist by the name of Peter B. Neubauer, an Austrian Jew who escaped Nazi occupation, led dozens of these “twin-studies” that separated twins and triplets into different families based on economic status and parenting style to discover the real difference between nature and nurture. Children adopted through the Louise Wise Agency were used for these experiments, unbeknownst to the adopted parents or the children.
For years, the triplets were not privy to files that detailed the purpose of their separation; in fact, the adoption agency that handled their case and so many other twin separations have sealed the files until the year 2066. However, since the film’s release and other twin discoveries, some of the information regarding the study has been released to individuals who were adopted from the Louise Wise Agency. Still, there are dozens of people out there who have no idea that they have a twin. Wardle’s film has inspired many to investigate their pasts and has even led to reunions of siblings that had no idea the other existed.
The most unsettling part of the film is the human experimentation that took place without knowledge or consent. Even more troubling is the Jewish adoption agency and the Jewish researcher that re-created these Mengele-esque experiments on Jews in a post-Holocaust United States. Many draw an ethical comparison between Neubauer’s twin experiments to those of the Nazi regime, making the irony devastatingly clear.