This 2018 documentary film directed by Tim Wardle see-saws between an upbeat, life-affirming tale to one of tragedy and institutionalised exploitation.
Three Identical Strangers covers the lives of the triplets Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran. They discovered each other by chance in 1980 when they were 19, with this triggering off an unexpected revelation regarding a socioeconomic human experiment they were forced into.
Nature VS Nurture in Three Identical Strangers
At age 19, Robert Shafran headed to the campus of a New York community college. On his first day, he was alarmed to find almost everyone already knew him and were greeting him with kisses and bear hugs.
Turns out, they all thought he was Eddy Galland—his twin.
One of Galland’s friends realised Shafran could only possibly be a twin, so he got the newcomer out to a payphone to ring his twin. This set the scene for their reunion.
From adopted families, they had no idea they had a genetic brother.
But things ramped up further when local journalists ran the story in the press, which was picked up by national newspapers. It became a national feel good story. And that caught the attention of David Kellman—who looked exactly like the two guys being covered across the media in America. They were triplets.
The media went ballistic, latching onto the story and catapulting the trio to stardom. Helped considerably by their youthful energy and natural charisma.
These three went off celebrating being united, not questioning what had gone wrong with the adoption process. They moved to New York in the same flat, began partying wildly, and remained inseparable.
At the peak of their fame, they even appeared in the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan with Madonna. The brothers have a small cameo.
They eventually opened a restaurant in New York called Triplets, which was a big hit and fuelled by enormous amounts of drinking. It wasn’t long before they were earning $1 million a year.
All great fun and a fairy-tale time of it. However, what transpires with the documentary is rather disturbing.
It’s revealed prominent child psychiatrist Peter B. Neubauer (1913-2008), a brilliant mind and highly accomplished in his field, engineered a morally questionable human experiment. Neubauer had escaped the Nazi control of Austria in the 1940s to establish his career. Ironically, what he did here has been compared to the Nazi twin experiments conducted by Josef Mengele.
The decision was made to split up twins and place them into families of different economic situations, with the aim of exploring how this affects the life of a person.
Now, that’s very morally dodgy. To put it mildly. So much so, for decades, the results of this experiment were never published.
Three Identical Strangers spends its second half exploring what happened, with the notable (and tragic) revelation of what happened to Eddy Galland in 1995.
Despite appearing charismatic and confident during interviews, he was battling a manic depressive disorder.
His brothers feel this could well have been down to his upbringing.
Galland’s adopted family note the devastation of what occurred to their adopted son, but the father notes he managed an authoritarian and strict style of parenting.
It makes for an unusual documentary, as the opening 30 minutes are so upbeat and uplifting—you can’t help but love the brothers and their infectious sense of fun as young guys in 1980.
But what transpires is, ultimately, a tragic story.
It reminds us a bit of The Imposter (2012), where not everything is as it seems in a family environment. Something is being manipulated.
Three Identical Strangers is on Netflix, should you want to watch it, and it’s recommended viewing as a bizarre story. One where personal identity and reality are up in the air, before falling and merging into an engrossing documentary with a sad, cautionary outcome hanging over it.
The Production of Three Identical Strangers
English director Tim Wardle headed the project. As he explains in the above interview, his involvement provided a fresh perspective on the story.
That’s quite common in documentaries as we can point to Senna (2010), amongst others, where the director has had almost no knowledge of the subject matter. That fresh approach can help to structuring the story.
Due to the unique nature of the film (and with it being rather good and all that), it was a critical and commercial hit.
Off its circa $2 million budget, Three Identical Strangers went on earn $12.3 million at the box office. That’s very impressive for a documentary, as this genre usually makes money back in the long-term from streaming services and rentals.
The film was considered for an Oscar nomination, reaching the final 15 films. But eventually wasn’t up for the big gong.
But the real surprise came after filming Three Identical Strangers ended.
As it turns out, the brothers were quadruplets. The fourth brother, unfortunately, died in infancy and was unknown by everyone until after the production.
And on another final note…
The documentary is going to be adapted into a mini-series. This was confirmed in February 2023, with Ben Stiller set to play the roles of the brothers.