Review: ‘Martha & Ethel’

Highly personal and original, "Martha & Ethel" deals with a subject rarely seen onscreen before: nannies and their long-lasting influence on the children they raise. Criss-crossing the paths of the filmmakers' own nannies, a German-Catholic and a Southern black woman, this remarkable docu provides a piercing yet subtle look at the inner workings of two families as they change over five decades of American history and politics.

Highly personal and original, “Martha & Ethel” deals with a subject rarely seen onscreen before: nannies and their long-lasting influence on the children they raise. Criss-crossing the paths of the filmmakers’ own nannies, a German-Catholic and a Southern black woman, this remarkable docu provides a piercing yet subtle look at the inner workings of two families as they change over five decades of American history and politics.

Though Martha and Ethel are of similar age, they couldn’t have had more diverse backgrounds — and personalities. Born in Germany in 1902, Martha trained as a baby nurse and worked as a nanny for a Jewish family. In 1936, she escaped Nazi Germany and emigrated to the U.S. Five years later, she began working for the Johnstones, where she remained for the next 30 years — until retirement.

Ethel is just as eccentric as Martha but displays a greater sense of drama and humor when she speaks. She was born in 1903 in South Carolina to a sharecropper family. Like Martha, she totally embraced the responsibility of raising someone else’s family — in this case, the Ettingers — serving as its cornerstone through divorce, relocations and marriages.

Though intimately focused, “Martha & Ethel” embodies a universal dimension in its challenge to the conventional definition of family, summed up by Ethel as: “You don’t have to birth a child to love her.” Docu shows effectively that it’s possible to be closer as a surrogate than a biological mother. Indeed, the children ultimately absorbed the value systems of their nannies: Martha’s authoritarian discipline and Ethel’s warm kindness.

As youngsters, the Ettingers and Johnstones were so used to their nannies’ presence and comfort that they were “offended” upon learning that a fee was paid for their services. Taking for granted their privileged status, they also naively assumed that every American family has its nanny.

Stylistically, “Martha & Ethel” employs traditional methods, mostly lengthy interviews with the nannies and their respective households. But what gives this docu a distinctive flavor is the personal odyssey that producer/director Jyll Johnstone and co-producer Barbara Ettinger have undergone, as they continue to define and redefine the meanings and effects of their relationships with their nannies.

“Martha & Ethel” assumes greater relevance by placing its unique personae in a broader political context. The vast changes in American society’s expectations of women as wives and mothers have dramatically affected the younger generation. It’s a testament to their bond that Ethel continues to live with Ettinger, though none of the children is at home, and that Martha moved to California to be closer to the Johnstones.

For the most part, “Martha & Ethel” presents its heroines from the children’s point of view. Docu glides over the emotional price and personal loss that these women might have experienced, as neither had romantic attachment once they assumed their positions. Analysis of the class differences between nannies and employers is lacking.

Still, earning every minute of its uplifting, life-affirming quality, “Martha & Ethel” raises provocative questions and is genuinely entertaining.

Martha & Ethel

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Canobie Films production. Produced, directed by Jyll Johnstone. Co-producer, Barbara Ettinger.

Crew

Camera (b&w, color), Joseph Friedman; editor, Toby Shimin; associate producers, Gretchen McGowan, Christina Houlihan. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Jan. 24, 1994 . Running time: 78 min.

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