Warning to German readers: I’m about to review Grizzly Man, a 2005 documentary by the grand old man of German cinema, Werner Herzog. There are no plans to release this extraordinary movie in Germany. I don’t know why this is so, and I hope whoever controls this decision changes their mind.
Now to the review. Herzog’s name conjures unshaven, sweaty half-madmen hacking through a trackless forest, cursing God. And Grizzly Man is no disappoinment, although the Herzogian protagonist here — a wildlife activist named Timothy Treadwell who lived among wild grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness — is real.
Treadwell believed that man can live peacefully with bears, and brought along videotape — which he shot himself, often alone — to show how it’s done. He shoots himself singing and talking to the bears (to whom he gives names like "Mr. Chocolate"), droning "I love you" over and over in a high-pitched voice to keep them calm, and even approaching and petting them. Treadwell filmed thousands of hours of footage of the bears and of himself before his luck ran out in 2003, when he and a female companion named Anne Huguenard were killed and eaten by an old, emaciated brown bear who was unfamiliar to them.
Herzog lets Treadwell emerge primarily through through his own film footage. Among surprisingly skillful wilderness photography (which earns Herzog’s admiration), there are more personal moments. During his lonely summers, Treadwell treated his camera as a "confessional," as Herzog puts it, committing his innermost confidences and inadequacies to its lens. Herzog supplements this footage by interviewing Treadwell’s friends, acquaintances, and family members.
The film’s narrative is a peeling-away of the layers of Treadwell’s personality, and Herzog paces it masterfully. At first, Treadwell is a happy-go-lucky ecccentric, wandering cheerfully around the unspoiled Alaskan outback, meditating in his high-pitched lisp about the wonders of nature and the individual quirks of his furry friends. Gradually, however, we learn of past brushes with drugs and mental illness (likely, bipolar disorder). His homemade tapes begin to reveal tinges of paranoia and self-aggrandizement; he’s convinced the bears are in grave danger and only he can save them (but they are perfectly safe, and his conduct actually threatens them by accustoming them to the presence of humans with darker purposes). Treadwell is also evidently horrified when the bears defy his sentimentalized image of them by, for instance, murdering their own cubs or eating each other.
Treadwell’s "study" and "protection" of the bears developes into little more than a backdrop to his own warped narcissistic posturing. In one amazing scene, Treadwell launches into a profanity-laced five-minute tirade against the government and society, painting himself as the bears’ only true ally. Herzog turns off the sound to Treadwell’s rantings and interjects his own comments while Treadwell stalks the screen. Then the soundtrack to Treadwell’s ranting resumes, only to reveal he has been circling obsessively around the same meagre set of self-aggrandizing delusions.
Herzog narrates the film in his own crisp, slightly-accented English, not only providing context, but sometimes interjecting his own views of Treadwell’s life and philosophy. I found this a minor distraction; many of the points Herzog makes are clear to the perceptive viewer. But in general, Herzog treats Treadwell’s friends and supporters — as colorful a supporting cast as any director could wish for — with dignity and respect.
By choosing a real person, and a very odd one at that, Herzog has set himself a challenge: how to illustrate the dark forces driving Treadwell without turning him into merely a laughable kook or deranged loner. I found that Herzog brought it off almost-perfectly, and delivered a portrait that is all the more frightening and moving because of the respect it has for its troubled subject.