What is Werner Herzog’s best film (in our opinion) is this week’s documentary: Grizzly Man. It’s an extraordinary account of one man’s decision to live unprotected amongst wild bears in Alaska – Timothy Treadwell did this for 13 straight summers, before meeting a horrendous end.
Herzog’s remarkable documentary is simply a study of human extremes (as with most of his work, most notably Fitzcarraldo) and it’s an essential film to watch. Released in 2005, Herzog was captivated by Treadwell’s story and he took the 100+ hours of footage Treadwell shot whilst alone in the Alaskan wilderness to structure his documentary. It’s a beautiful setting, but it plays out as an examination of the human condition.
The documentary examines the conservation efforts of Timothy Treadwell (1957 – 2003), a failed actor who turned to animal rights in the early 1990s. Feeling alienated from the world, he set off to Alaska where he began living unarmed amongst wild grizzly bears.
After a number of years, he began to take a video camera with him to record his spectacular location and its inhabitants (enormous bears), styling himself as an animal activist along the way. With his good looks and enthusiasm, he was perfectly suited for it and soon courted some media attention across America.
By late 2003, however, Treadwell’s daring met with horrific results, which also, tragically, involved his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. The documentary has a sense of foreboding throughout as it builds towards this climax, providing a chilling reminder that Treadwell’s often sentimental views of mother nature aren’t shared by the bears he’s around.
Through Herzog’s narration, we gain intimate insights into the bears (literally, they’ll be right in your face) and Treadwell, whose candid on screen ranting depicts a childlike naivety at times, alongside the macho bravado he had to head out and live amongst wild bears with only his tent for protection.
The Fatal Attack
Despite occasional bursts of mental instability from Treadwell during the film, which leads to some bizarre behaviour, we still find him endearing. He’d be nearly 60 now, but it’s difficult to see any other outcome than what occurred in 2003 to the intrepid, self-styled activist.
He did push the limits, but he failed to respect the boundaries between nature and humanity. Eerily, Treadwell seemed to be well aware of this and it seems he may have been on a self-destructive rampage, which coincidentally allowed him to promote the welfare of his beloved bears.
He noted in letters to friends he believed his death would further the cause of animal conservationism, but it’s consistently stated throughout the film the bears were in a protected region of land. You can only conclude that Treadwell was out there in the wilderness to escape his frustrations with life and, over 13 summers, found a sense of wellbeing.
Herzog, incidentally, refused to include the audio tape footage of the fatal bear attack. It’s unclear what happened, but one of Treadwell’s cameras was recording sound when a lone bear stormed his camp. The recording has never been made public, but by keeping it out of the film Herzog did a noble act and it steers Grizzly Man away from unnecessary horror.
In what is a flawless documentary, we hope the public memory of Treadwell will be of someone who was a good person, but who was severely frustrated and misguided.
Herzog discusses this to greater effect than we ever can in the documentary – he immersed himself in Treadwell’s world and the result is this outstanding piece of work which remains, 11 years after its release, a masterpiece. You can do yourself a favour and watch it immediately.