Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Underneath everything, I believe, both women (Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger) are furious at their parents for not raising them themselves. But their fury is balanced by the deep love one family's children feels for its nanny. The other nanny is a more difficult case.
The families are the Johnstones and the Ettingers. The Johnstones hired Martha, a German immigrant, to care for their children, and Martha was a strict taskmaster. The children do not much remember her smiling, and there were times they "hated her." The Ettingers hired Ethel, a black woman from the South, who was so warm and generous that the children are still close to her - and Ethel and Mrs.
Ettinger, both now very old, still live together, in an affectionate mutual dependency.
Perhaps both families got what they were looking for. "When they had to be punished, they were," says Mrs. Johnstone of Martha's methods. "They were little hellions, you know. They had a little cruel streak." Mrs. Ettinger looks fondly on Ethel's less disciplinary approach: "I think choosing someone who is terribly kind is more important than choosing someone who is terribly efficient." The filmmakers intercut stock footage to show the worlds that Martha and Ethel came from. Martha's milieu is illustrated by clips from "Maedchen in Uniform," a German drama about a sadistic girls' school. About Ethel we are told she sometimes saved up to visit Harlem on the weekends, and that's the setup for clips of Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club. The footage reveals more, perhaps, about the filmmakers' fantasies about their nannies than about the nannies' own lives.
What lurks under so many of the scenes in "Martha and Ethel" are emotions that are never really brought to the surface: anger against the absent mothers, and guilt about the women who devoted their own lives to substituting for them. One of the mothers, who began life as a child prodigy at the piano, later switched to the occupation of being a full-time socialite, and the movie discusses her life as if it were indeed a career - and hard work. We hear about her "half-dozen charities," including the Junior League, where the exhausting charity work entails dressing in glamorous gowns in order to be applauded at expensive lunches in hotel ballrooms.
At one point very late in the film, both directors escort their nannies back to the homes they had left many years before.
Martha walks down the streets of her hometown in Germany, and Jyll Johnstone says, "It was the first time I had seen her truly happy since I knew her." We have earlier learned that Martha saved prudently for her old age, and was much beloved in the apartment building she retired to, not least because at her age she could climb four flights of stairs.
In another sequence, Barbara Ettinger takes Ethel down south to see her sister "for the first time in 64 years," and we wonder: Although Ethel and Mrs. Ettinger are shown as still living together happily after all these decades, did it not occur to the Ettingers for 64 years that Ethel might like a trip home? What's interesting is the way the nannies are revealed on their own terms. Martha, trained as a strict disciplinarian in a German school for nannies, did what she was taught, and yet later in life is revealed as sweeter and more cheerful than the children remembered her. Ethel, so beloved, nevertheless reveals in a couple of places that she knows exactly what the score is. As the camera looks at the Ettinger family home, she indicates an area above the garage: "Those three little windows - those were my quarters." I think the bottom line is that Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger both wish they had been raised by their mothers, not their nannies (fathers are portrayed in the films as busy working in the city; one marriage ends in divorce, pointedly not discussed). Their mothers are ambiguous. And Martha and Ethel both seem to feel they got more or less what they bargained for in the way of an occupational choice, although for Ethel there was also the bonus (or was it the consolation?) of love.