Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” documents the short life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell, a troubled young man whose mission to protect the grizzlies of Alaska ended abruptly in 2003 when a bear devoured him and his girlfriend Amie. By spending 13 seasons camping in the grizzly sanctuary, Treadwell had escaped his myriad problems in a human world in which he could never find a place. Though he knew better, he habitually and stupidly crowded the bears, as if to prove that they accepted him as one of their own, which behavior led to his death.
Herzog has found a kindred spirit in Treadwell, who in his mad reckless passion for his vision was willing to risk being consumed (though Treadwell made rather literal what remained metaphoric for Herzog). Indeed, Herzog may feel that “there but for fortune go I” in the sense that it’s remarkable that no one was seriously hurt or even killed in the making of his “Fitzcarraldo”, in which he decided that rather than use special effects to depict it, he would actually pull a steamboat over a mountain in the Peruvian jungle. (Incidentally, Herzog’s narration makes a sly reference to the parallels between Treadwell and Klaus Kinski, the brilliant but volatile actor with whom his cinema is inextricably linked).
What fascinates Herzog is that Treadwell was, in his way, a filmmaker and an actor. He fashioned himself the star of the video footage he shot on his forays into the bear sanctuary, and much of “Grizzly Man” is comprised of this material. Herzog is basically an editor of the Treadwell tapes here, and in that capacity and as narrator, Herzog the clear-eyed German engages in an honest, frank dialogue with the emotional American. Though as a filmmaker he treasures the wonderful images Treadwell captured, Herzog is a critic of Treadwell’s philosophy, particularly his tendency to sentimentalize and anthropomorphize wild animals. Rarely does a documentarian state so explicitly of his subject, “Here is where I agree and here is where I disagree”.
By painting a complex portrait of a man too self-contradictory to be easily judged, Herzog has made Treadwell into one of cinema’s unforgettable characters, thereby ironically fulfilling what was, in a way, one of Treadwell’s goals. A deeply angry man under his child-friendly exterior, Treadwell was both an innocent and a drug addict; a man possessed of a mighty lust for life who felt most alive when riding the edge of death. He was at once utterly sincere and a shrewd constructer of myth and image; was acting a role for the camera at the same time he revealed to it his innermost feelings.
Though Treadwell faked a lot in his life, his love for animals was real; you can feel it coming off the screen. He was a quintessential American character, wild and free; and he lived to remind us that without vigilance we stand a very real chance of allowing those precious qualities to be lost. “Grizzly Man” is the first film in some time which I’ve seen fit to garland with the accolade of “essential viewing”.
- Sep 4, 2005