Werner Herzog has long obsessed over grandiose imagery and unusual documentary subjects (Kuwait’s burning oil fields, the Loch Ness monster, a lost tribe in the Amazon). So I expected his latest documentary–about a man and his girlfriend who were killed by a grizzly bear after the man spent years living with the beasts for months at a time–to be an exercise in style that would milk the eccentricity of its story. Fortunately, Grizzly Man is much more than that; it offers a humane and multifaceted portrait of an individual whose emotional makeup probably wasn’t all that different from the rest of us.
Timothy Treadwell was an out-of-work actor with a lifelong attachment to animals. In 1990, he began camping out in the wilderness in Alaska’s Katmai National Park in order to “protect” and “study” the grizzlies, but this mostly entailed watching them, attempting to develop some kind of nonviolent interaction with them, and–beginning in 1998–video recording them with his own bubbly, adventurous, quasi-Nature Channel introductions. Only once in the 300 hundred hours of footage he amassed does he ever come into contact with poachers, nor does he follow any rigid scientific procedures.
But underlying Treadwell’s project is the sense that animals and the wilderness provided him with a certain personal “acceptance” unavailable to him in Los Angeles or even human society in general; though he was a verbose extravert who wore his emotions on his sleeves, he never managed to achieve success in his career and seemed perpetually flummoxed by the people he knew. In a very real sense, his video recordings were the ultimate independent production, and he presented them at schools around the country for free. Treadwell clearly relished being in front of the camera, gushing words in a spontaneous burst of conviction, and then immediately scratching a take and launching into another monologue with a slightly different mood or emphasis.
Herzog constructs his film with Treadwell’s footage as well as his own, interviewing the friends and family who knew Treadwell and various biological and forensic experts. (The family of Amie Huguenard, the woman killed with Treadwell, refused to talk with Herzog and thus remains a mysterious presence in the film, rarely caught on tape.) The commentators run the predictable gamut between calling Treadwell a foolish idealist who “got what he deserved” to friends and lovers who deeply grieve his demise. A lesser filmmaker would have stopped there with a dramatic premise, “reality” footage, and a variety of talking heads for “tension,” but Herzog highlights Treadwell’s complex psyche, at times seemingly fragile and at other times, seemingly resilient and creative. Herzog shows us the man confessing his thoughts and feelings to the camera in frank and revealing ways: Treadwell rages against the environmental bureaucracy he feels endangers the bears, pleads for the conservation of nature as he strokes the fur of foxes he has tamed, and humorously describes his own romantic frustrations after a bear is defeated in a violent match over a potential mate.
Just as Treadwell’s amateur footage is largely a dramatic performance, Herzog’s assembly is largely an excellent example of film criticism, selecting and highlighting the material, narrating throughout while adjusting audio levels and displaying a combination of empathy and critique towards Treadwell. Herzog clearly admires the man’s fearlesssness and inspiration, yet challenges his reckless love of nature and miscalculated anthropomorphism. Watching Treadwell interact with the beasts and then watching Herzog interact with that footage, presents a strikingly tragic, frightening, moving, and reflective film experience.