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Martha & Ethel

Martha & Ethel is a documentary story that you don’t see very often, perhaps because it shows the flip side of the privileged lifestyle.  It is the story of 2 lifelong nannies and the two families they worked for in Manhattan and Greenwich, Connecticut from the 1940’s up to the 1990’s.  The film follows the nannies and their relationship to the families’ children for a lifetime.

It is a look at mothering from not only a sociological, but also a very personal and emotional point of view.

“Martha & Ethel” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. It was shot in 16mm, blown up to 35mm and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. It had a theatrical run across Europe and the United States.

Additional Info

Jyll Johnstone

Director of Photography
Joseph Friedman

Toby Shimin

Alysha Cohen, Barbara Ettinger, Christina Houlihan, Jyll Johnstone, Frank Ortega, Sharon Wood, Sharon Woods

Martha Kneifel, Ethel Edwards, Ruth Fuglistaller


Running Time
1h 18m






About the Film

“Martha & Ethel” is a 16mm, color film that examines the inner dynamics of the American family. By focusing on the long-term roles of two nannies, this 80-minute documentary explores the complex relationships that develop when an outsider is hired as a child’s caretaker and nurturer. The film touches on a variety of related topics as well — the benefits and drawbacks of hiring outside childcare, the changing roles of women, and the inherent responsibilities of parents.

“Martha & Ethel” is particularly unique because of the way in which the film was developed.  The title characters, now both 88 years of age, were the real-life nannies for the directors, Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger. Their methods of discipline and supervision were very different — Ethel was an affectionate, caring nurturer of the Ettingers, whereas Martha was a strong, unsympathetic disciplinarian who never hesitated to hit the Johnstone children when they disobeyed. These intrinsic differences and their long-term effect are, in part, what makes this film so compelling.

Within these large families — there were five Johnstone and six Ettinger children — all the children are interviewed. These discussions are revealing because now these children are grown and are making decisions about how to best raise their own families.  One of Barbara’s sisters, for instance, made a conscious decision to employ a younger nanny to care for her three children: “I wanted [her] to be a lot younger, so I clearly was the older, maternal figure and she clearly was the playmate, sororal figure.” Interviews are woven together using film footage from home movies, still photographs, newspaper clippings, and other pertinent personal memorabilia.

“Martha & Ethel” is a fresh look at the complex relationships that develop not only between a nanny and the children she cares for, but also a nanny and the children’s mother. Whereas Martha has little contact with Mrs. Johnstone, Ethel still lives with Mrs. Ettinger in Greenwich, Connecticut. As the eldest Ettinger child admits, “It’s as if [after forty years together] Ethel and Mom are addicted to each other, almost like a married couple.”

Before accepting their long-term nanny positions, both women had unique personal journeys which are explored in “Martha & Ethel.” Martha was born into a large, Catholic family in Baden-Baden, Germany. Trained as a baby nurse, she began work in 1930 as a nanny for an affluent Jewish couple with one child. With the threat of Hitler, Martha tried to work for other, gentile families, yet was not allowed to work because of her past Jewish employment. So, in order to remain self-supporting, she emigrated to the United States — away from her country, her family, and her language. In 1941 she began to work in New York City for Mr. and Mrs. Johnstone, shortly before the birth of their first child, and remained an integral part of the family for 30 years. She retired in 1971 and moved to Queens.

In 1990 she was persuaded by the Johnstone’s eldest daughter to relocate to a retirement home in California. “Martha & Ethel” traces this emotional move to what is perhaps Martha’s final home. A highlight of the “Martha” segment is a trip taken with Jyll in June 1991 to Martha’s hometown in Germany. It had been forty years since Martha last visited and the trip gives both historical and personal insight into Martha’s difficult past.

Ethel was born and raised in a working family in rural South Carolina. Similarly, she left her home in the 1930s and had a variety of jobs, mostly domestic work, in the South before becoming a nanny. She willingly embraced the responsibility of raising the Ettinger children and was virtually the cornerstone of the family, through divorce, several relocations, and deaths. The film includes a poignant scene when Barbara and Ethel visited Ethel’s hometown — Starr, South Carolina — and attended Ethel’s family reunion.

“Martha & Ethel” is a personal view of a universal topic. The theme of childrearing is especially relevant today with so many women in the work force who, particularly out of financial need, must give up their childrearing responsibilities to hired employees or other family members. With escalating concerns about day care and the often absent “mother-nurturer” in today’s family, the film is of contemporary interest. Also, “Martha & Ethel” looks at a profession that is gradually becoming obsolete. Although there are still nannies or au pairs, rarely do women today devote their entire lives to their employer’s family.


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