Director Werner Herzog is no stranger to bizarre and unusual storytelling, in fact his career is a plethora of quirky dramas, unique thrillers and highly original documentaries; along with the occasional acting performance when his hectic schedule allows. So then it seems almost typical for such a filmmaker to have tackled the controversial and inherently disturbing tale of the “grizzly man” Timothy Treadwell as he explores the Alaskan wilderness, following the wild trail of his deceased subject’s legacy. And in usual Herzog fashion the final result of his 2005 feature-length documentary proves to be a compelling and inherently cautionary tale of man versus nature.
“Grizzly Man” is unusual as feature documentaries go. For a start Herzog’s subject (along with his girlfriend) were brutally killed and then eaten by one of the many bears Treadwell had spent his life trying to protect and document. Because of this tragedy the director has instead compiled the countless hours of footage that Treadwell shot over his many years of wandering the Alaskan wilderness in his effort to protect the native bear population. We see Werner following in Treadwell’s footsteps as he visits his subjects old friends and family whilst also spending a fair amount of time interviewing Treadwell detractors too. Herzog’s balanced approach can make him seem almost unnaturally cold as a storyteller upon first viewing but as we as an audience have the potential to grow to like Treadwell so too does the filmmaker.
The film could essentially work as a detective story in the way that the director has compiled Treadwell’s footage with his own documentary. Herzog’s hunt to understand why such a man would spend almost the entirety of his life in one of the most dangerous places on Earth is both a mystery to him and ourselves. But like any good investigative caper we can begin to see the passion and drive that Treadwell had infused inside of him gradually emerge from this insanity. This eccentric, surfer-come-environmentalist, who at first can generate instant dislike and annoyance in his appearance and tone soon becomes a much more fragile and sensitive man than we first realised. Werner’s job it seems is to bring up this truth from the ground and shed a light on the complexities of Timothy’s persona. Treadwell was indeed an eccentric but for all the right reasons. The way he talks to his camera about the bears he is currently spending time with or how he states passionately that he would die to protect them is powerful stuff for an amateur filmmaker.
And indeed it is thanks to Herzog’s editing techniques and narration that we can truly appreciate the magic Treadwell caught on film. Moments were he is seen walking into the distance are impressive in there cinematography but what makes many of these shots even more special is how a group of foxes follow him from behind, as if trained to do so. His relationship with the local wildlife of the national park is truly impressive when witnessed as Treadwell seems more at home with other animals than he ever did with humans. However Grizzly Man has its darker side in spades too. One particularly gripping moment is when Werner is given a tape of the last audio recording made by Treadwell just before a bear devoured him and his girlfriend. Herzog’s reaction is horrifying and his desperate advice to the owner of the tape is truly touching. In fact it would seem that Herzog’s main point about Treadwell’s life was to use it as an example of man living with nature. His wonderfully Teutonic narration serves as a fantastic epilogue about the different views he and Treadwell have of the world, one between harmony and chaos. Grizzly Man is indeed a chaotic documentary given its construction but the story Herzog brought to life for a worldwide audience is one that truly needs to be experienced no matter where you stand on Treadwell’s actions.