by Drew Martin
The documentary films of Werner Herzog are not simply the products of good directing and editing. They are experiences in which he shares his deep contemplation with you. He doesn't just take you places; he makes you think very differently about a subject. With his lens he is an experienced traveler, not a naive tourist.
Grizzly Man is a 2005 documentary by Herzog about the annual expeditions that Timothy Treadwell made to Alaska to commune with wild grizzly bears. His extended 13th trip had a fatal ending. He and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard (pictured together 2nd from top) were eaten by a grizzly bear who lingered through late autumn in a last ditch effort to fatten up before winter hibernation. When the park rangers eventually shot and inspected the predator's innards, it had enough human remains to fill four garbage bags.
This documentary is a mix of Treadwell's recordings (from more than a hundred hours of footage) and interviews by Herzog with various people including Treadwell's parents, the bush pilot who shuttled him to his remote locations and discovered his remains, the coroner who did an autopsy on the what was left his body, and two woman with whom he was very close: an ex-girlfriend, and a platonic lady friend with whom he stayed before each expedition.
A young native Alutiiq from Kodiak Island speaks about Treadwell crossing the boundary that his people respected for "seven thousand" years.
A helicopter pilot called in to clean up the remains of the attack and slaughter of the bear offered that Treadwell had not been eaten sooner simply because (just as a hunter would not bag rabid game) the bears probably saw him as a deranged creature.
Although Treadwell was empathetic and sincere about his love for bears, it was at the expense human relationships. Even Herzog is critical of Treadwell's delusion by painting a harsher picture of nature than Treadwell's bear utopia. At the same time, his film honors Treadwell and respects what he accomplished as someone trying to get closer to nature and as a filmmaker in his own right.
Herzog seems delighted by Treadwell's companionship with wild foxes, who tag along on his adventures for his kids-show-style narrative complete with a silly voice. This, however, is tarnished by an occasional F-U paranoid rant and an equally caustic and crazy-talk desperate chase to get his favorite cap back from a young fox who runs off with it.
Halfway through the documentary I felt as if any other filmmaker would have already exhausted the topic and sensationalized the events but this is where the genius of Herzog kicks in and is able to carry the film to feature length.
What I like about his filming style is that he keeps the camera rolling after an interviewee has said his or her last word. It is when you see a person retract to a less animated state and you notice that even honest conversation is a form of acting.
I do not know if Herzog understands this but his commitment to this film pays more respect to his subject than any of the scenarios Treadwell could have envisioned to spring from his death.