It’s difficult to know what to make of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. This is an example of inconceivable artistry, finding its place in between the same, tragic world-portrait evoked through all of the German director’s films, and the intriguing madness of his subject, Timothy Treadwell. Viewers are almost immediately made aware of the fact that this is not a wildlife documentary. In fact, Grizzly Man is more appropriately the in-depth study of Treadwell himself. Most interestingly, largely made up of the subject’s own footage, it becomes his self-portrait.
Treadwell spent a total of 13 summers alone in the Katmai National Park in Alaska. With his camera, he set out to document his time there, and his on-going mission to protect the grizzlies that inhabit the land until the close-proximity he practised got him, and his girlfriend killed. In this way, the substance of the film is Treadwell’s. Over his 90 hours of video, carefully squeezed into 103 minutes by Herzog, and pushed along with various interviews, and the director’s bleak narration, his disturbing and heartrending tale is preserved. His methods as an activist are seen as questionable, his relationship with the bears is deeply peculiar, and for the most part, he appears to annoy them more than protect them – a lot of the time, you can’t help but wonder how threatened they really are in the relative safety of a National Park. His motivation definitely stems from a love for the bears, but a grossly self-satisfying love. Most of the time, it’s evident that Treadwell’s mission works somewhat therapeutically – throughout the film, he confesses to be hopelessly unsuccessful in real life, namely, with women – and in this way, he seems to have found his sanctuary within the bear kingdom, welcomed by the bears or not.
Alongside everything, it is Herzog’s feelings towards Treadwell that stand out. The director approaches the activist sympathetically. At the same time, he is handled fairly, and it immediately becomes evident that Treadwell is no ‘hero’ in the traditional sense of the word. Nor, it seems, despite his constant claims, is Treadwell masquerading as a hero. At times, it feels as though his real undertaking is to be heard, to garner attention and to expose his troubled soul to those that will listen. The filmmaker’s approach is not one of admiration, but an underlying respect is found throughout, whether that be the respect for a lost, attention-seeking little boy, a tortured soul ceaselessly trying to escape, or a master comedian playing the world for fools. Whatever strange world Treadwell was living in, it deserved an unbiased exploration – something that Herzog has always been good at.
His presence within the grizzlies’ home is almost unnoticed. And when a little response is seen, it is either one of indifference or aggression. Herzog sums it up nicely when he states, “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, 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”. For this reason, one wishes to see the world, and the situation, through the subject’s eyes, wishes to fully understand Treadwell’s exact thoughts and desires. What strange game was he playing?
But while his presence among the bears often proved to be ineffective and disturbingly vain, a true portrait emerges, the picture of somebody who left our world and found another. On top of this, the footage gathered over his time living in the national park was often breath-taking. Pieced and patched together by Herzog, there are moments of wonder throughout the film, giving his outwardly fruitless cause a certain romantic air. Pieces of film including two bears involved in a fierce and magnificent battle, or clips of Treadwell’s bond with an especially trusting and playful fox. Upon viewing Grizzly Man, many questions arise, concerning both the reasons and purpose of this man’s struggle. While none of this is ever really answered, his life is worth being thought about and reflected on. Something that Werner Herzog’s documentary achieves fantastically.