– In nature, there are boundaries. –
The story of Timothy Treadwell is a tale of obsession and a portrait of insanity, two themes that consistently prick up the ears of German director Werner Herzog. For thirteen summers Treadwell lived among the grizzly bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska, an annual pilgrimage the last of which was prematurely curtailed by a fatal attack on the enthusiast and his girlfriend. Despite the fact that a combination of expert interviews, discussions with loved ones and original footage is conventional documentary fodder, Grizzly Man is not just another doc. Herzog arranges the film to maximise irony and juxtapose ideas; in making himself a narrative and occasionally visual presence, he pushes us to consider why we are drawn to the story.
The film commences with Treadwell’s explanation to his camera, against a backdrop of grazing grizzlies, that “if I show any weakness, I’m dead… they’ll chop me up into bits and pieces.” This beginning is an extremely apt use of dramatic irony and foreshadowing that establishes the eerie tone of the film. Herzog continues the feeling of unease throughout by preserving the long takes filmed by Treadwell. This convention of realism in film enables Treadwell to speak for himself in Grizzly Man, allowing the audience an insight into how he functioned as a man. Some viewers may find themselves beseeching Herzog to end a take when Treadwell goes off on a rant. It’s unflattering and it is uncomfortable to see Treadwell come across as insane, bolstering claims that he had a personality disorder. Unfortunately the documentary can feel exploitative, as if it capitalises upon someone with an illness.
Herzog has never shied away from discomfort and heightens this effect, furthering the theme of insanity by allowing his interviewees to appear off-kilter as well. They are overly dramatic and relay long-winded stories of interactions with Treadwell. When interviewed by Time magazine Herzog claimed that he is not an interviewer but just ‘ha[s] conversations’. Watching Grizzly Man this is hard to believe. The filmmaker provokes monologues that reveal just as much about those being interviewed as it does about the subject they discuss. The strangest interview is with the coroner who inspected Treadwell and his girlfriend’s bodies. With audio such as “[the] remains *bangs metal coffin* came in this large metal can *drops lid*” and “just the visual impact of seeing a detached human being makes my heart race,” he seems to have an almost psychopathic quality, channeling the plethora of creepy doctors that have appeared in cinema. So odd are the interviewees that some believe they were actors or perhaps given lines from Herzog.
Grizzly Man, with its cutting portrayal of the main subject Timothy Treadwell as well the interviewees, does not possess the usual tone of a documentary; it does not enjoy the enthusiasm of David Attenborough, the impartiality of Ken Burns nor the fire of Michael Moore. Instead the film embodies a quiet disdain for its subject stemming from a fundamental philosophical disagreement between Treadwell and Herzog.
Treadwell, a self-confessed former alcoholic and drug user, viewed living with the bears as a more peaceful way of life. He believed in the harmony of nature and treated the bears as “people in bear-suits”. When confronted with the reality of danger and death Treadwell acts as a child might, for instance stating that he didn’t understand why a baby fox died. In the book Herzog on Herzog the director states that ‘civilisation is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness’, and that by leaving civilisation behind Treadwell was not experiencing the harmony of nature so much as its brutality and indifference to life.
That said, Herzog does exhibit respect, describing Treadwell as a ‘methodical filmmaker’ who ‘captured glorious improvised moments’. While this may be true we are not treated in the final cut to much of the 100 hours of footage Treadwell filmed; the film is not about wild animals, it is about people. Herzog tells the story of the bear enthusiast by imparting the story of his curiosity about Treadwell. Herzog’s voiceovers consist of musings on the nature of the character on our screen, not descriptions of what is being seen.
The film holds some importance as a film about films. Herzog discusses what Treadwell omitted from his recordings, such as his girlfriend, and includes a scene where he entreats people bringing him supplies not to help because he’s “meant to be alone”. Though the long takes, rants, and handheld camera technique make the footage appear raw and real, the initial choice of what to film means that editing has already taken place, a fact that Herzog subtly points out. Additionally, Treadwell occasionally filmed “Timmy jungle scenes” – many takes filmed with the hope that they might be cut into a documentary at some point. Also, more abstractly, the filmmaker describes the camera as Treadwell’s companion; the naturalist postulates to it as one might to a friend, musing why he doesn’t have a girlfriend and why it’d be easier to be gay.
There is something infectious about Grizzly Man. The only way to scratch the itch it inspires is to keep watching. We find ourselves being pulled inexorably into a morbid, sad story; this is the mastery of Herzog’s work. He highlights the ridiculousness of humans while the audience laugh at the way Treadwell talks to and about the animals (“Ghost, where’s that fucking hat? It’s so friggin’ valuable for this trip!” and “the poop… it was just inside of her!”). Nevertheless, every now and again the audience may wonder if they’d come across any saner than Treadwell if they talked to a camera for long enough…