Picks and Pans Review: Martha and Ethel

UPDATED 02/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST


Prosperous couples who don't want to engage in the frontline skirmishes of child-rearing often hire nannies for the job. This sometimes moving if rather stiff and attenuated documentary chronicles the lives and times of two nannies and the post-World War II families who employed them.

A native of Baden, Germany, Martha Kneifel spent some 30 years in the New York City area overseeing the upbringing of the five Johnstone children (including Jyll, the film's producer-director). Martha was a diminutive enforcer whose Teutonic training fostered an emphasis on hygiene and firm discipline above all else. "She wasn't the sort of person who'd give you a peck on the cheek," observes the now elderly Mr. Johnstone, who, like his Junior League-absorbed wife and the other parents in the film, seems sufficiently remote from his offspring to warrant therapeutic intervention. Ethel Edwards, a capellini-thin black woman from South Carolina, who tended the six Ettinger children of New York and Connecticut (among them Barbara, the film's coproducer) and still lives with Mrs. Ettinger, was as warm and loving as Ethel was chilly. (It is one of the documentary's weaknesses that it is so schematic.) Martha and Ethel, alternately narrated by Jyll John-stone and Barbara Ettinger, is most successful in the portrait it paints of the two principals. Using still photographs and archival footage, the filmmakers give a rich, detailed accounting of Martha and Ethel before their days as family retainers. Best and most affecting are the images of the sentimental journeys Johnstone takes with Martha to Germany and Ettinger with Ethel to South Carolina. Where the documentary fails, unfortunately, is in giving much sense of how Martha's gimlet-eyed rigidity and Ethel's cozy affection shaped and influenced the children in their care. (G)

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