“When Ettinger and Johnstone began their film odyssey in 1989, neither dreamed their home-movie homage to their nannies, Martha Kneifel and Ethel Edwards, would blossom into a feature-length documentary that would set the 1994 Sundance Film Festival abuzz, win the audience award for best documentary at the October Hamptons International Film Festival, or be screened at the Museum of Modern Art’s contributors’ dinner next month.”
“Imagine a documentary so smart it sweeps any resistance into its own story by tackling difficult questions, a film so loving that, by the end, you care passionately about the filmmakers and their indomitable subjects: Ethel, now ninety-four, who escaped the South Carolina sharecropper fate of her family, and recently deceased Martha, who left behind the Third Reich in 1936.”
“A documentary about two aged nannies and the Baby Boomer girls they raised might seem an unlikely sort of film to generate a major buzz, but that’s what happened when Martha & Ethel (the nannies), produced and directed by Jyll Johnstone and coproduced by Barbara Ettinger (the girls), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. Sony Classics Pictures snapped up the delicate personal chronicle of the lives of Martha Kneifel, a German-born baby nurse who fled to the United States during Hitler’s regime, and Ethel Edwards, the daughter of black South Carolina sharecroppers who became the cornerstone of a well-to-do white family in New York. Richly layered and utterly charismatic, Martha & Ethel delves deeply into the dynamics of the postwar American family, revealing sometimes painful truths about childhood, relationships between daughters and mothers (and mother figures), the changing roles of women, and the evolving structure of the family.”
From Rolling Stone:
“Delicate work is being transacted in this unique and unforgettable documentary about two nannies. Producer and director Jyll Johnstone was one of five children in the care of Martha Kneifel, a refugee from prewar Germany who ruled the Johnstone kids with a firm hand. Co-producer Barbara Ettinger, a childhood pal of Johnstone’s in Manhattan, was one of six children who found a soft touch in Ethel Edwards, a nanny from a sharecropping family in the rural South. Johnstone, an actress, and Ettinger, a photographer, wanted to film a tribute to the two nannies (Martha died in October) who played such an integral part in their formative years.
They did a lot more. What could have been a mere memoir becomes a provocative document about the changing nature of family. Johnstone and Ettinger were children of ’40s privilege; today, child care is often a necessity. Through Martha and Ethel and those whose lives they’ve touched, the filmmakers catch the emotional highs and lows of surrogate parenting and craft a touching film of harsh, haunting truth.”