Grizzly Man (2005)

Directed by Werner Herzog


Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a self-assigned protector of the bears in the Alaskan wilderness.  In 2003 he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard were killed by a brown bear.

Using Treadwell’s own home video footage, Werner Herzog studies the man’s life and his passion for wildlife preservation as well as raising questions about Treadwell’s methods. By putting himself into the documentary, usually with voice over and a couple times in the actual frame, Herzog makes it clear where he stands on this story.

Early on he celebrates Treadwell’s enthusiasm, even as he interviews subjects that disagreed with Treadwell’s methods of coming into contact with the bears.  Later, Herzog begins to discuss the ways in which he disagrees with Treadwell, saying things like, “I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”

One of the last things Herzog says in the documentary is, “In all of Treadwell’s tapes, 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.”

This is a story about a guy who’s so absurdly passionate and hopeful about life, at least his own, and it’s told through the lens of someone with the complete opposite worldview.  It’d be like if your nihilist friend told you about his happy friend’s new puppy.

In another version of this movie, the reveal that Treadwell was devoured might be pushed off as a more dramatic moment, but in Grizzly Man, Herzog gives us this information right away.  The more shocking development in the documentary is watching Herzog slowly tell us how much he disagrees with Treadwell and his philosophy.

At first Herzog celebrates Treadwell.  He focuses on the footage of himself Treadwell recored, specifically on the moments between takes.  A a filmmaker, Herzog admires Treadwell’s need to deliver the line exactly right, but in a sense he betrays Treadwell’s own filmic vision by emphasizing the time in between those takes.  He deconstructs Treadwell’s process, opening it up for the world to see because he sees Treadwell, I think, as beneath him.

Now, this is subjective, but Herzog really makes his presence known in this film.  He takes another person’s story and lathers it with his own vision.  It’s slow at first, but by the end of the film he really makes it clear how much he appreciates Treadwell’s enthusiasm, his eccentricities as a character, but he seems to treat as though he’s less than human, just a character in a movie.

And that fits in, I suppose, with Herzog’s life philosophy of “chaos, hostility and murder.” He takes Treadwell’s fascination with the bears and uses it to mirror his own fascination with Treadwell.

In other interviews with people who knew Treadwell or had some connection to what Treadwell was all about, Herzog delights in their strange quirks.  The coroner, for one, describes the way in which Treadwell and Huguenard were likely mauled with a curious fascination, again one that mirrors Herzog’s fascination with Treadwell.  Both the filmmaker and coroner describe a set of events in a tone that seemingly contradicts the nature of those events.  A man’s death is spoken of as if describing an interesting weather phenomenon, and a man’s life is portrayed with an increasing focus on his possible mental instability.

Treadwell’s life is undermined, and his death obsessed over.  In his own footage, Treadwell described how willing he was to die for these animals and how his death might do more good than his life could.  And perhaps he’s right.  The movie was made because of his death, and people in the documentary pick apart his death, using it to advance their own feelings towards him and what he stands for.

In the end, Treadwell just feels like a carcass being picked apart, and Herzog’s treatment of his life feels a bit murky, a bit like he’s taking advantage of a man who could never respond to the opinions Herzog attaches to the film.

Up Next: Storytelling (2001), Taxi Driver (1976), Columbus (2017)

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