You know when Werner Herzog makes a documentary, it’s not going to content itself with your typical PBS/Discovery Channel sort of informational objectivity but get into the realm of personal moviemaking. In Grizzly Man, Herzog tries to come to grips with the life and death of the oddball/self-styled naturalist Timothy Treadwell, who devoted the last 13 years of his life to “protecting” the habitat and welfare of a colony of Alaskan grizzly bears.
Treadwell is an immensely compelling personality (something of a poet in how he expresses himself), and Herzog relies a great deal on the found footage which Treadwell shot of himself communing with the bears, bees, foxes and which traces the downward spiraling of his own mind. Gradually, Treadwell becomes convinced that he has a special bond with nature, particularly with the grizzlies that he watches over, and that the human world is constantly threatening his spiritually given charge (though the bears in question are all a part of federally protected land). Treadwell, on some level, operates with incredibly selfless courage and compassion. He continues his private crusade, living for months on end in utter isolation, recording his adventures with a video camera, and roughing it while camped down on grounds he knows are dangerous. That is, until October, 2003 when he and his girlfriend are attacked and savagely killed by a grizzly (the kind of death that Treadwell fears, prophesies and continually reminds us of throughout his videotaped in-the-field testimonies).
Herzog’s movie is an attempt to understand Treadwell–where he came from, what made him tick, and why he took it upon himself to do what he did and die the way he did. Herzog comes to Treadwell’s defense, in awe of the man’s manic obsession and total devotion to his cause (no surprise, because Herzog has always been fascinated by obsessive personalities — see My Best Fiend, his documentary about his love/hate relationship with madman-actor Klaus Kinski). Herzog interviews Treadwelll’s parents, a former girlfriend, others who knew him and those who remain confounded by his actions and beliefs, naturalists and eco-biologists among them. Particularly chilling is the interview with the charter-plane pilot who ferried Treadwell for years to and from the Alaskan island where he spent his summers and, finally, found his and his girlfriend’s remains. It’s gruesome testimony. Even more so is the coroner’s recollection of the remains and of the audiotaped evidence of Treadwell and his girlfriend’s ill-fated encounter with the ravenous grizzly, which Herzog himself cannot bring himself to endure fully.
Clearly, Treadwell lived in his head — he was an arrested pre-pubescent who lived out in the wilds as if it were fantasyland, investing it with a child-like sense of awe, wonder, and danger — and this is not meant to be endearing, rather it becomes more and more a sign of a seriously deluded mind.
The conclusion that Herzog brings us to–that Treadwell’s intensity has to be honored, but also that his is a cautionary tale, reminding us that nature has no friends nor foes. It simply follows its patterns, cycles, its laws with a unwavering, indifferent eye. It has no sense of compassion or allegiance, nothing guiding it but its own self-preservation. And those who don’t understand that will soon enough pay the same price as Treadwell.
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Screenplay by: Werner Herzog