“Three Identical Strangers”–Triplets and Eugenics

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers raises difficult questions about how a 1950’s and 60’s psychological study was never made public, even to this day. Much of the data and conclusions remain unclear. In this study by respected psychologist Peter Neubauer,  unsuspecting subjects were parents and their adopted sons who were systematically studied and tested. The abuse of power, lasting two decades in the name of science, is the underlying theme of Three Identical Strangers.

Neubauer himself died in 2008 and bequeathed over sixty boxes of interviews, film footage and other raw data to Yale University with the proviso that it be sealed until 2066. His purported goal was to gather empirical data on children with the same genetic background in order to analyze parenting styles (“authoritarian” versus “permissive”) and address the issue of nature vs. nurture. Due to controversies over ethics and public opinion, Neubauer never published his research and the data remains sealed.

The film starts in 1980 when three teenage boys accidentally discover they are triplets. Although they were intentionally placed with families of different socioeconomic classes, in different parts of New York State, the three nevertheless become aware of each other.

The focus in Three Identical Strangers is on parenting rather than genetics. While the study was the only triplet study at that time, which followed siblings from infancy, many twin studies had been conducted in Nazi Germany as well as in the United States.  The Neubauer researchers carefully controlled the assignment of infants to parents, withheld information about their biological parentage, and didn’t disclose that the children being adopted were part of triplets or twins, or had other non-identical siblings. Instead, the adoption agency told the families that their children were being followed for a study about child development. At a time when the zeitgeist is to explore one’s chromosomes through services such as 23andMe or family ancestry through organizations like Ancestry.com, Three Identical Strangers taps into our curiosity about DNA versus environmental predispositions.

The film needed to reveal much more backstory about the relationship between the three sets of parents, and the adopted boys. This omission truly weakens Three Identical Strangers and leaves us wondering: What makes siblings differ radically, even if they share identical DNA?   We also wonder what the ethical and legal standards were at that time. An historical perspective on how psychological studies have changed in the past half-century, as well as the legal rights of subjects, would have rounded out the film. Does Yale have any duty to unseal the study? Should researchers review the findings and share them?  This is worthy of renting, but not leaving the house for the theater.

La Mante–The Praying Mantis

La Mante

This  must-see French suspense thriller focuses on   an imprisoned female serial killer, recruited to help solve a string of copycat murders, but only if her son, Damien, now a policeman, works with her on the case.  The mother is nicknamed “La Mante”,  the praying mantis.

First, it may be helpful to understand the biological nature of the praying mantis: the female camouflages herself and often ambushes the males and eats them live.

The levels of tension just increase from the beginning till the end as the viewer watches the stalking and the violent killing. All victims in La Mante are men.  Is the serial killer a woman?

Mom–Jeanne Deber (the beautiful Carole Bouquet)–is serving a life term without parole for the brutal murders of eight men. We do not know the motivation for her heinous killings. She has been serving a prison sentence for twenty-five years as La Mante opens, and we flash back to her abandonment of her young ten-year-old son as the police drag her her sobbing little boy away. The viewer will understand the motivation and unhealed wounds Jeanne suffered by the final episode’s thrilling climax.

Damien, now a senior investigator in Paris, is ordered to investigate a series of killings nicknamed the “Copycat Mantis”. He is deeply wounded by the purported death of his mother (whom, at first, he does not know was the notorious “Mantis”). Desperate to help catch the killer and prevent future murders, Damien reluctantly agrees to be involved in the police investigation at great cost to his personal life and his relationship with his young and incredibly understanding wife.

The twists and turns in each of its six episodes never fail to be compelling. With echoes of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal” this dark and very bloody thriller never holds back with even the most gruesome shots of corpses. La Mante is certainly not for the weak of heart; if your stomach isn’t the strongest, I’d recommend passing – or watching the more bloody sequences with one hand over your eyes. The suspense and performances at their core, however, make La Mante well worth every hard-to-watch scene. The clever red herrings and false starts at identifying the copycat mantis are tightly woven into the subplot of the mother-son relationship and the son’s own misgivings about ever becoming a parent. Very dark, troublesome, and pathological areas of human relationships are explored–sometimes venomous, toxic and unforgivable.

La Mante is another success in French cinema–especially well-focused on the mother-son relationship, or the possible murder of a relationship from lying to those we leave behind.   As in real life, the criminal mind is traced back to events and backstory in childhood. La Mante is an astonishing opening of ruptured wounds traced back over a quarter of a century ago. Astonishing, provocative and gasp-worthy. Warning: not for all tastes!

 

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

Babylon Berlin–The Fragility of Democracy

Babylon Berlin Netflix series

Adapted from the best-selling detective novels by the German author Volker Kutscher, the highly praised Babylon Berlin begins less than ten years after the Treaty of Versailles. Germany is in turmoil. (Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party would come to power in 1933.) Set in the golden ’20s (1926-1929), Berlin is not so golden for everyone. The Nazi takeover is still a couple of years in the future, but the general turmoil is already evident.

Babylon Berlin is part period drama, part police procedural, and part mystery thriller, but there is always an undercurrent of intense foreboding, drawing on our 100 percent hindsight of what’s to come. Hitler’s name is heard only once and Brown Shirts first appear in one of the last scenes. The era’s troubled Zeitgeist is well-known to viewers but not to the players in this underworld of politics.

Suffering from “shell shock” and addicted to morphine, police detective Gereon Roth (Volker Bruch), arrives in Berlin and connects with Lotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a police department typist, nightclub entertainer and part-time prostitute. She aspires to being the first female homicide detective, eager to escape the hardships of poverty and her brutal family life. Lotte manages to become a heroine despite the sexism and corruption of the police force.

Gereon and Lotte soon discover conspiracies and intrigue: hijacked freight trains, smuggled munitions, sex trafficking, police partnering with organized crime, Soviet collusion, Communist (Trotsky) revolutionaries, drug deals, and élite corporate magnates invested in maintaining their grip on the economy. Throughout, we see Berlin as a swamp of contrasts: elegant Berliners fill a debaucherous cabaret as rampant poverty persists in nearby neighborhoods; outright bigotry and violence occur daily and secretly; and ordinary Berliners cling either to a tenuous status quo or to dreams of revolution.

From economy to culture, everything is in the grip of radical change. Speculation and inflation are already tearing away at the foundations of the still young Weimar Republic. Growing poverty and unemployment stand in stark contrast to the excesses and indulgence of the city’s night life for the privileged and well-connected.

Weimar Democracy was under attack both from the Communist Left, as well as by traditional Conservatives, in a kind of unholy alliance. The Nazis did not just arise from nowhere. They were citizens who reacted to Germany’s economic conditions and wanted radical change. Both the government and the wealthy in Germany and Russia use this populism to serve their own dreams of domination.

 Politically and economically, the nation was struggling with the terms and reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) that ended World War I.  Punishing levels of inflation ensued.

The parallels with today are particularly disturbing. Could this backstory of what happened in Germany in the 1930s and the years immediately preceding the rise and stranglehold of Nazism foreshadow America today? And of course, we naturally speculate how easy it is for an anxious public to succumb to a demagogue.

Note:    This Netflix Original series is in German and subtitled.

 

 

Marcella –Battling Inner Demons

 

Marcella series

Promoted as a Scandinavian noir detective series on the streets of Britain, Marcella is written and directed and produced by Swedish screenwriter Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of The Bridge. Two seasons on Netflix, Marcella  delves into the psychology of a deeply troubled London detective.

In Season One Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) investigates a cold case involving a serial killer who appears to have become active again. At the same time Marcella also has to deal with her disintegrating personal life, where her husband, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), has made the decision to leave her and take their two children into his custody. In addition, her soon-to-be ex-husband is suspected of being involved with the murder of his former girlfriend, Grace. Due to traumatic blackouts Marcella cannot recall her own confrontation with Grace.

 In Season Two Marcella investigates a pedophile, who has victimized and murdered her young son’s best friend and other young boys and girls. The suspects include an arrogant millionaire, a 1970s rock star with dementia, and his talent agent. Her estranged feckless husband has become engaged to a nurse, putting their children in the middle of an ugly custody battle. Marcella’s blackouts continue, and she seeks counseling to help her remember –under hypnosis–what happens.

Both seasons of Marcella delve into the psychology of a deeply troubled and flawed character, whom some viewers will find difficult to empathize with. Tortured and battling her own demons while trying to solve some of the most gruesome crimes on the streets of London, Marcella is challenged by doubt and “impostor syndrome”, not believing in her own capabilities to discover the murderers.

In the final episode of Season Two we see Marcella end her denial, admit she is not well, and descend into an abyss. We are waiting to see how she claws her way out in the projected Season Three.

In 2017, Friel was awarded the International Emmy Award for Best Actress. The structure of the narratives in Marcella are so complex that a second viewing is recommended. Could the narratives have been clearer? Yes, but still not so convoluted as to pass on this one. Not as riveting as The Bridge in several of its versions, but nonetheless highly original and psychologically riveting.

 

“Man in an Orange Shirt”–Thwarted Love

 

Man in an Orange Shirt

Man in an Orange Shirt, commissioned by BBC to celebrate the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, depicts with a modicum of success two love stories spanning seventy years. The first between two gay men hiding their passion and the second involving a duplicitous marriage of one-sided passion. Scripted by novelist Patrick Gale and partly autobiographical, Man in an Orange Shirt revisits prejudice and its impact on all.

Spanning three generations in one family, –from wartime Great Britain to the present day,– Man in an Orange Shirt uncovers secret love letters, a mysterious painting, and deep unfulfilled desires on the part of all characters.

The gently wrenching story of repressed love follows a secret romance between two World War Two soldiers Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas (James McArdle), and the resulting, heartbreaking impact on Michael’s wife Flora (Joanna Vanderham of “Paradise”). Compounding the heartbreak is Vanessa Redgrave who plays the octogenarian Flora trying to reconcile with a gay grandson.

Flora is furious at her husband’s sexual betrayal, but also frightened for him since homosexuality is a criminal offense. She and Michael share a sibling-like affection for each other, even though Flora wants and expects more. All three–Flora, Michael, and Thomas–are casualties, trapped by fear of prison, fear of marital rejection and fear of being a social outcast. Abrupt truncation of the secretive lives of all three leave the viewer wondering how they muddled through the superficiality of their everyday existence.

Fast forward to present day, when homosexuality is no longer criminalized, but tragedy and hurt still arise. “Gay shame” resides in the breathing space between the beloved grandmother Flora (Redgrave) and her grandson Adam (Julien Morris). Decades removed from her younger self, Grandma Flora has spent the best part of her life pretending her marriage was solid.  In 2017 Adam admits he feels gay shame, even in the present climate of assumed equality and openness. Appearing to function in a gay world, Adam’s terror at intimacy and commitment is palpable, in spite of a seemingly privileged life with dating apps to staunch his boredom.

A Man in an Orange Shirt has some touching moments between Michael and Thomas, and particularly between Flora and Adam, but the pivotal conversation about Adam’s sexuality lacks emotional heft and authenticity. The scene should have resonated deeply for many who are close to their grandparents. Redgrave’s performance as a woman who never had her husband’s love turns too artificial and overwrought as she transforms into an understanding and accepting figure for Adam.

I was disappointed in this dual story of thwarted love. “Call Me By Your Name”, an Academy Award-nominated film for 2018, reflects rejecting love for the sake of social convention with more power, authenticity, and emotion.  In sharp contrast, A Man in an Orange Shirt, is inconsistent and therefore forgettable.

Note:  Available on PBS.com