Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man

How do we deal with genuine delusion? What do we say to someone who fervently believes in something that we know (or think we know) to be false? Do we force our own version of the truth on that person (and is that even possible)? Do we dismiss that person as a madman, laugh at him for the silliness of what he believes? Do we try and see things from his point of view and consider that he might actually be right? Or do we respect him, not for his beliefs, but for the genuineness of emotion that goes with them, for the joy and peace he radiates, envying him his illusions since all truth is relative anyway?

Timothy Treadwell was a young American who spent 13 summers in the Alaskan wilds living with grizzly bears. In the course of these summers he came to be greatly attached to the bears, believing them to be his friends, believing that with enough courage, love and understanding he could live among them, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the human world. Then, in 2003, he and his girlfriend were killed in an attack by a hungry grizzly. Treadwell left behind many, many hours of footage from these expeditions of his – film that looks both at the bears in their natural habitat and at Treadwell’s own life among them.

In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog puts together a documentary on Treadwell’s life, interspersing the footage that Treadwell himself shot with Herzog’s own exploration of his life and death. The result is a mesmerising portrait of a deeply disturbed and delusional young man who nevertheless manages to find a way of life so ecstatic, so pure, as to be almost inspirational. There is a Peter Pan like quality to Treadwell’s life – he exists in a dream world, a world that is in denial of the harsh realities of life in the wild and that you cannot help laughing at sometime, but it is also a wonderful, magical world, and watching him drift through it you are filled with an unspeakable nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent way of life, and a deep emotional connection to so laughably genuine a character. None of us would do what Treadwell did because it is too illogical, too ridiculous; but there is a child within us that understands him better than we are willing to admit, and that wishes that things were really that simple.

Treadwell’s own footage is fascinating for two reasons. First, because it includes some of the most incredible wildlife footage this side of Animal Planet – Herzog himself acknowledges this. It’s not just that Treadwell manages to get miraculously close to the animals (both bears and foxes) so that there are scenes of him actually swimming in the water with a ten foot high grizzly, or shots of him stroking wild foxes; it’s also that for someone with no real cinematic experience, he shows a deep natural flare for camera work, some of it accidental (Herzog highlights one glorious scene where the camera is rolling and Treadwell is out of the frame and he captures this wonderful shot of just the wildness of the spot without even realising it), some of it just marvellously executed (there’s one incredible sequence of two bears fighting). But more importantly, the footage is fascinating because it shows us (as Herzog emphasises throughout) a portrait of the very real person Treadwell was. Treadwell is amazingly unguarded in these films [1] – there are scenes of him speaking into the camera while addressing god, of him breaking into tears as he talks about his beloved animals, of him talking about his love life, even a long clip of him cursing the National Park service in no uncertain terms! This is genuine reality television – it’s a no holds barred encounter with an incredibly genuine and sensitive young man – an opportunity to get under someone else’s skin in a way that you very rarely get to experience.

The other thing that makes this film interesting though, is the skill with which Herzog both imposes his presence on the film and manages to remain hidden. Herzog is unobtrusive in that he tries to provide a balanced picture of Treadwell – his own footage includes comments from people who both loved and admired Timothy as well as people who disapproved of what he was doing. What emerges is the picture of someone who is neither a hero nor a freak, but rather a genuine human being with all the ambiguity and ambivalance that implies. This may seem like indecision on Herzog’s part, but to make a feature length documentary about someone without judging them is no mean feat.

At the same time, Herzog is not reticent about his own point of view. He clearly puts forward his belief that Treadwell crossed a line that he should not have, and that his idea that the bears were his friends was pure delusion – they saw him with little but indifference, and then only as food. Herzog also meditates (skilfully for the most part, though there is one ham-handed analogy between a glacier and Treadwell’s soul) on questions of identity, and what it really means to be human. There is a hint here (and only a hint) of a deeper musing on the more complex, almost mythological questions of metamorphosis and self-realisation, as well as some questions about the nature of religion (for what is Treadwell but the ultimate fanatic – albeit of his own religion). By the end of the documentary, Herzog manages to make Treadwell into a Kurtz like figure – part heroic myth, part troubled misfit.

What’s refreshing here (in an age when privacy is so much at a premium) is the way that Herzog chooses to be dignified and reticent about Treadwell’s story – sensitive to the pain that some revelations could cause. Thus we are not shown the photographs of Treadwell’s gruesome death, nor are we allowed to hear a tape of the actual killing (the camera was running when the bear attacked, but the lens cap was on so there was no visual, just the sound of that fatal struggle). Nor are we told much about Treadwell’s personal life, outside of some historical background and the things that he himself chooses to show us in the tapes. There are many subtle hints and implications here, but coming from Herzog, it seems like an extremely subdued film [2].

If there is one flaw in the film, it is the fact that Herzog focuses too much on Treadwell’s death. The day of his death is described in excruciating detail, and Herzog spends entirely too much time (in my opinion) on leading slowly up to the death at the end of the film. My own point of view is that Treadwell’s death was inevitable (a point Herzog seems to agree with) and that therefore the exact details of it are irrelevant – if it hadn’t happened this way it would have happened some other. Herzog, however, feels the need to dwell on the tragedy, even going so far as to suggest (implicitly) that Treadwell had some kind of premonition of his fate. Again, I disagree with this. Certainly Treadwell recognised that what he did was dangerous (but like the boy who never grows up, he seemed to counter this danger with his own self-assured arrogance, so that it never seemed to become real for him) but everything else that Herzog focuses on is probably just ordinary coincidence taken out of context because of what we know subsequently happened. This preoccupation with Treadwell’s death seems overly maudlin, and I think Herzog’s time would have been better spent focussing on the man’s life. The end of the movie is beautiful though – Herzog finds the perfect song, the perfect shot, the perfect message.

Overall, Grizzly Man is a fascinating watch – a skilled exploration of the life and personality of a magical human being, with the added benefit of seeing some stunning wildlife footage.


[1] Assuming, of course, that Treadwell is not acting in these scenes. Herzog never really seems to question the genuineness of most of the footage, but given that Treadwell had a history of trying to create a new persona for himself by lying about his origins, etc. – plus the fact that he had some acting talent – one must at least entertain the possibility that what we are watching on the tapes is an entirely fictional Treadwell. This is not a serious problem (unless you’re devoted to Treadwell or something) – it just means that you’re seeing a stunning portrayal of a troubled, anxious and sentimental young man as opposed to the real thing. It’s still just as interesting, though.

[2] For more on Herzog, see Jabberwock’s excellent post.