Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a fascinating exploration of human behavior disguised as a nature documentary. A mishmash of original footage shot by grizzly bear fanatic Timothy Treadwell and interviews conducted by Herzog after Treadwell’s untimely (yet unsurprising) death at the paws of his beloved animals, the film struggles with its own subjectivity while trying to find meaning in a unique man’s existence.
After failing to make it as an actor, Treadwell spent 13 summers living amongst Alaskan grizzly bears in a nationally protected state park. He filmed much of his time there, speaking directly to cameras mounted on tripods. Throughout his little speeches, he claims to be the bears’ sole protector from poachers and deforestation. Treadwell’s cameras, however, never show the bears encountering any actual danger, and an Alaskan biologist refutes Treadwell’s assertion during one of the interviews, saying the bears he lived with rarely come in harm’s way.
Was Treadwell genuinely confused about his relationship to the bears or actively constructing a false hero persona? While the answer to that question is unclear, what’s never in dispute is Treadwell’s love of grizzlies. He gives the bears he encounters pet names like Mr. Chocolate, stands in dangerously close proximity to them, and in one of the oddest moments ever captured on celluloid expresses fascination with a particular bear while caressing its feces.
Thankfully the film consists of more than just scenes documenting Treadwell’s bizarre lifestyle. Herzog skillfully incorporates footage that delves deeper into Treadwell’s personality and begs more questions than it answers. Rather than treat his subject with reverence, Herzog looks for idiosyncrasies and contradictions. One such oddity Herzog highlights: While speaking to the cameras, Treadwell talks almost as much about his repeated failures with women as his fascination with grizzly bears.
Herzog also continually points out that Treadwell is a filmmaker trying to present a certain character. In the scenes Treadwell constructs, he portrays himself as a lone figure stranded from civilization. But some of the more candid footage inadvertently captured by the rolling cameras proves Treadwell obviously had more human contact than he wanted his imaginary audience to know about. Treadwell does repeated takes of certain monologues, trying to transform into the character he wants to convey. These little rehearsals surface questions about his claims and motivations.
Herzog’s interviews address similar issues about narrative credibility. His interview with the coroner who examined Treadwell’s remains is particularly jarring, not because of the subject matter but because of the way it was filmed. Done in one take, the question Herzog poses is not heard. Instead we watch the coroner launch into an overdrawn monologue describing both his examination of the bodies (Treadwell’s girlfriend perished by his side) and the audio track of Treadwell’s death, which was unwittingly recorded by one of Treadwell’s cameras. The coroner continually hesitates between sentences and looks off screen so often that I began to question how much he actually remembered from the examinations and how much his mind was filling in. The audiotape of Treadwell’s death is never played during the film, but one scene shows Treadwell’s closest surviving friend listening to it in horror before Herzog suggests she destroy it.
Such bizarre moments appear onscreen as often as beautiful and terrifying images of grizzly bears in their natural habitat. As a result, Grizzly Man examines subjectivity as much as the consequences of living with wild animals. Herzog even inserts a clip from Treadwell’s appearance on The Late Show. In it, David Letterman jokingly asks Treadwell if he thinks he will end being eaten by the bears, a possibility Treadwell casually denies even though the probability of such an ending always seems quite within the realm of feasibility.
These scenes illustrate that different people interpreted Treadwell and his vision in different ways. Some saw his death at the hands of animals he so desperately wanted to co-exist with as a tragedy, others as a matter of him getting his comeuppances for repeatedly testing fate.
Regardless as to which side of this argument you agree with, Grizzly Man is an extraordinary journey into the curious motivations and unfortunate ending of one man’s uncommon American life. Seeing the strength of Treadwell’s probably misguided convictions and the lengths to which he went to pursue them certainly makes an interesting statement about human desires. Thankfully Herzog never romances Treadwell’s vision; he keeps it grounded by his own outside and sometimes unforgiving perspective.