Doc of the week: Grizzly Man

Directed by Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog has made his career out of films about obsessed eccentrics who can scarcely be accommodated within society, from the holy innocent ‘enfant sauvage’ Kaspar Hauser to the megalomaniac Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo who pursue their obsessions beyond human limits. Timothy Treadwell, subject of this film, is somewhere between the two – an apparently gentle, almost simple-minded soul who takes his teddybear along when he camps in the highly dangerous grizzly reserve, and a man capable of intense rage and irrationality in pursuit of his quest.

Much of the film is made up of footage shot by Treadwell himself, of himself, in Alaskan bear country. In the States he was famous as an unconventional conservationist with an obsession with bears, making films of them in the wild with which to publicise his cause. With his ‘Prince Valiant’ hairdo and camp ways, he cuts a strange but sincere figure. But the salient fact about Treadwell now is that in 2003 he was killed, and eaten (mostly), by a bear, along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard.

Herzog’s own contributions are increasingly bizarre – his steady Germanic tones providing an unsettling commentary, and his interviewing and filming of Treadwell’s friends and the professionals involved in the aftermath of his death has a surreal edge. (The chap who did the autopsy is especially spooky, giving grisly details of the three garbage-bags-ful of human remains recovered from the bear’s gut.) At first you’re rather ashamed to laugh – it seems awful to laugh at the dead, but soon the nervous titters at the show I attended turned more full-blooded. You just can’t help it. ‘I didn’t expect to find it so funny,’ confessed the girl next to me, half apologetically.

There are very unsettling moments, like the one where Herzog, watched in silence by Treadwell’s former girlfriend, grimly listens to the sound recording of the fatal attack (the camera was running but lens cap in place). Shocked, he removes the headphones. ‘You must never listen to this, Marnie, you must destroy it,’ he tells her. She solemnly nods. What a strange theatrical scene. In a way seeing him listening is more chilling than listening ourselves. And how very clever of Herzog to stage this – we are already feeling guilty at finding Treadwell rather comic, and now we feel bad about really wanting deep down to listen to the horror too. It’s a fine game he’s playing with us. Later he tries to analyse Treadwell’s simplistic view of an innocent, well-intentioned nature, and in doomful tones gives his alternate vision of a nature red in tooth and claw, a nihilistic world of ‘hostility, chaos and murder’. We feel suitably chastened.

So, Treadwell is a tragic figure because he gave everything for his cause… But what was ‘his cause’? Apart from interesting people, especially young people, in bears with the films, which weren’t after all so amazing, the money given to him seems to have all gone to provide him with the means to spend several months a year living close by them in a way which validated his strange take on life, regarding himself as almost a member of their tribe. And also allowing him to feel special. His attitude to the bears is unsettlingly anthropomorphic – he has names for them and talks to and about them like naughty children or best mates. Similarly there is a particularly sentimental passage where he talks man to man with a fox who lurks around the camp, and races with him through the grass. For the most part the animals act as if he isn’t there – but Treadwell’s aim, the ideal of human and bear living side by side, is frowned upon by most conservationists as not in the best interests of the bears, for whom a healthy fear of humans is protective.

As one learns more about Treadwell’s chequered past and sees him in his primpings (‘now which bandana shall I wear today?’) and rages, both against poachers (whose work he may well be aiding by accustoming the bears to human presence) and the conservationists of the reserve, the complexity of the man makes him more of an Aguirre than a Kaspar Hauser, and in one telling scene shot inside the greenish light of the tent he almost comes to resemble Klaus Kinski, star of Aguirre. He even rails against the gods of the world religions (including the ‘Hindu floaty thing’) when it rains for too long and his tent starts to collapse. In the most queasy scene of all he films himself almost orgasmically fondling some bear ‘poop’ (It’s still warm! It’s just come out of her!!’)

Similarly one’s disquiet rises as one realises that the faithful girlfriend who accompanied him on many trips and died apparently trying to save him is scarcely included in any of his shots. Treadwell never mentions her presence in the self-centred monologues to camera, and no-one seems around to mourn for her, in contrast to the reverential eulogies by friends and professionals alike on Treadwell. After getting quite fond of him as a daffy eccentric, the feeling certainly grew on me that his egotism was less than attractive and his behaviour more calculating than at first sight. The footage he shot was all me me me, the animals all viewed via his mawkish distorting vision. Whether Herzog means us to see it this way, or whether his apparent admiration for Treadwell is genuine, is dubious – you are certainly aware that you are in the hands of a very clever film maker, selection and editing of the original material and interviews all meshing together to produce a film that might seem simple but is actually very complex and may say as much about its maker as about the man who shot the original footage.

Seen at Odeon Panton St, London, February 2006

Now released on BFIplayer, March 2017

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