In the closing moments of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog considers some of the last footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before a hungry bear mauled Treadwell and his girlfriend to death in Alaska’s Katmai National Park on October 5, 2003. The bear in the footage, Herzog observes, could very well be Treadwell’s killer: It’s an old, desperate creature looking for food after the last of the summer salmon runs have dried up. Treadwell stuck around too long after his 13th summer living among the bears, and the extreme danger of camping in the “grizzly maze,” a dense forest where he and the animals couldn’t spot one another from a distance, was even more heightened. What happened wasn’t a surprise to anyone, least of all Treadwell himself: He told a friend every year, “If I don’t come back, it’s what I want. This is the way I want to go.” And it confirms Herzog’s long-held beliefs about nature—expressed most memorably in Burden Of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the calamitous making of Fitzcarraldo. Nevertheless, as the director ponders a close-up of Treadwell’s possible killer, he articulates his positions beautifully:
What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears Treadwell filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.
It could be argued that this is the moment when Herzog finally tips his hand over Treadwell, a controversial figure who believed himself to be “a kind warrior,” protecting these bears from poachers and other, more vaguely defined threats to their existence. And there’s plenty of evidence, like the quote above, that makes it clear how far Herzog’s view of nature deviates from the anthropomorphized fantasy Treadwell lived out every year. One of the elements that makes Grizzly Man such a fascinating documentary is the contentious dialogue between Herzog’s narration and Treadwell’s running commentary, but it isn’t the film’s purpose to settle the debate over the correct perspective on nature. That was resolved by the bear. Herzog’s true interest is the more mysterious realm of human nature, and with Treadwell, he adds to a career-long obsession with visionaries undone by hubris and madness.
Documentary filmmakers have been collaborators with—not merely observers of—their onscreen subjects since 1922’s Nanook Of The North, and the best profiles lead viewers to think about the push-and-pull between one person’s agenda and another. We saw it recently with Errol Morris’ adversarial relationship with Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, when Morris turned Rumsfeld’s semantic jujitsu into a damning statement on his ineptitude as Secretary Of Defense. We saw it again with Robert Greene’s Actress, a much friendlier collaboration with Brandy Burre that’s part intimate portraiture, part Burre “acting” in a highly aestheticized performance of her own life. The filmmakers ultimately wield the power in that relationship—they have final cut—but Timothy Treadwell didn’t live long enough to assemble his own Grizzly Man, much less enter into a dialogue with Herzog, and it’s not in Herzog’s interest to let Treadwell’s dubious claims and self-mythologization go unquestioned. After all, here’s a director who responded to the anthropomorphic lovebirds of March Of The Penguins—released the same year as Grizzly Man, but on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum—by featuring a deranged penguin wandering off to its doom in his next movie, Encounters At The End Of The World. He does not suffer fools.
And yet Grizzly Man is a fair film, a respectful film, and a sympathetic film, and Herzog is a better caretaker of Treadwell’s footage than Treadwell would have been. He challenges Treadwell often, but only when the claims the man is making need calling out. For example, Treadwell’s ostensible reason for spending all those summers among the bears is that he wanted to protect them and educate the public; Herzog doesn’t go too deep into the latter mission—other than to note that Treadwell’s appearances at schools were free of charge—but the bears were already living in federally protected land, and there was no indication that poachers were significantly harming the population. Beyond that, there’s no sense of how Treadwell planned to protect them, and plenty of evidence that his attempt to immerse himself in their world did more harm than good.
But for Herzog, the fact that nature is a harsh, indifferent, and—perhaps most of all—resolute force makes it a revealing test of our will and frailty as human beings. Though Herzog might be the least likely person on earth to refer to wild bears as “Mr. Chocolate” or “Sergeant Brown,” he and Treadwell have more in common than not, and it’s the director’s empathy that guides Grizzly Man, not his skepticism. For one, Herzog has repeatedly been guilty of taking his camera into exactly the kind of perilous situations that got Treadwell into trouble. He’s ventured deep into jungles and extreme cold, he’s spent time in war zones and on Harmony Korine sets, and he even ate his shoe to settle a bet that Errol Morris doesn’t remember taking. Spending time among the bears is a calculated risk that Herzog, as much as any living filmmaker, would actually consider, just not as naïvely. When Herzog the narrator looks at take after take of a particularly erratic Treadwell at the end of summer 2000, he notes, “I have seen this madness before on a film set.” Treadwell is fully one of his characters, a part that Klaus Kinski might have played.
Beyond that, the key benefit of having Herzog assembling Treadwell’s footage is a perspective on the material that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Herzog stands in awe of Treadwell’s up-close-and-personal shots of bears in all their “grace and ferociousness”—a long take of a fight between two males over a female is stunningly savage, not to mention revealing of Treadwell’s own romantic frustrations—but the stuff that truly fascinates would have gone straight to the cutting-room floor. Though Treadwell failed in his efforts to become a Hollywood actor—his story about nearly getting Woody Harrelson’s part on Cheers doesn’t pass the smell test—he had an innate sense of where to place his camera, and how to present himself in front of it. At the same time, the camera served as his companion out in the wild, a sounding board for his frustration, his paranoia, and the ebb and flow of his joy and despair.
In one scene, Treadwell credits his summers among the bears for rescuing him from alcoholism, brought out by a lifetime of disappointments that the film evokes as much as it can. The outtakes, as well as interviews with the people who really knew him, don’t quite fit the tidy profile of the dumb environmentalist who, in the harsh words of a local helicopter pilot, “was acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes out there, instead of wild animals.” According to the pilot, “he got what he was asking for, he got what he deserved.” But Treadwell’s behavior was part of an aspirational goal to cast off the shackles of civilization and live as simply and freely as the animals, which isn’t much different than the daredevil outdoorsmen who walk the mortal tightrope to achieve transcendence. Another thing to keep in mind: Treadwell stayed alive for 13 summers in close proximity to the bears, and there’s some truth to his boasts that he understood them better than other people.
But the phrase that really resonates, however inadvertently, is “he got what he was asking for.” That’s much different than “he got what he deserved,” which is the sort of value judgment the pilot intends. While there’s an element of braggadocio to Treadwell claiming, “my life is on the precipice of death”—that only he has the courage to put his body on the line to protect the bears from harm—Herzog locates the inner turmoil that brought him to this place, where he knew full well that he could (and likely would) die one day. It’s a true tragedy that he fatally roped another person into his self-destructive venture, but Grizzly Man implies that Treadwell got exactly what he asked for, from the 13 summers he lived among the bears to the October day one of those bears turned on him. He was never going to live as the animals do, no matter how hard he tried, but he was never again going to live like humans do, either. Ultimately, there was no place for him in either world.
Our Movie Of The Week look at Grizzly Man continues on Thursday, with Keith and Genevieve in a Forum discussing personal reactions to Treadwell and how Herzog places himself within the movie. And Tasha will take the discussion in a different direction with a side essay on how the film fits into Herzog’s favorite theme, about restless dreamers battling the world. Stay tuned.