Grizzly Man (2005) is as much about the filmmaker-subject relationship as it is about the subject himself.
The subject is Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers living among them and recording more than 100 hours of video with them and himself. Treadwell and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard met their untimely deaths when they were attacked by a bear in Alaska.
The footage Treadwell left behind becomes part of the foundation for telling his story in this documentary. It shows him as enthusiastic about the bears and about interacting with them. Treadwell brings a boundless energy to his excited commentary about the bears, their relationships, and the other wildlife.
Werner Herzog develops his own relationship with Treadwell during the documentary. On the one hand, he expresses a great admiration for Treadwell’s footage and the depths of humanity that the footage offers. In the voiceover he claims he found “a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil.” He admires Treadwell’s tenacity and taking shots, in one case repeating a take 50 times. He also admires the way in which some of the shots take on their own life.
Herzog builds Treadwell’s story through interviews with friends, former girlfriends, his parents, and experts. They all note his exuberance, but some of them point out darker sides of his personality as well. Not everyone thinks highly of Treadwell. One of the first interviews with Sam Egli shows him stating, “He got what he was asking for,” for Egli thought the greater tragedy rested with Amie’s death.
But the larger meditation in this piece centers on Treadwell’s ideas about bears and rejection of humanity and on Herzog’s relationship with the subject of man and nature. One juxtaposition is particularly telling here. We see Treadwell over the moon about a pile of freshly dropped bear dung. “It was inside of her,” he exclaims as he touches it. This moment segues into looking at how Treadwell almost ignores the idea of death and its function within nature. Here, Herzog asserts his own view, stating, “He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” To punctuate his point, the camera shows a close-up of the dead baby fox’s head.
“He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” — Werner Herzog
In the end of the film, Herzog reveals that he has access to Treadwell’s final tape. Earlier in the film, he listens to the tape with Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, and he tells her not to listen to it, not to watch it, but instead to destroy it. She agrees with him. In these final sequences, we see Treadwell talking before the camera, filming an extended sequence of a bear, and revealing a third shot of Amie. We see or hear nothing of his final moments, but instead we hear the coroner recounting what he heard and how he interpreted it. Any closer would have been too much.
While Treadwell’s love of bears continues up until the moments of his death, Herzog remains unconvinced of Treadwell’s deeply forged connections with them. Instead, he observes over a shot of a bear’s face, “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.”
“I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.” — Werner Herzog
I’ve always maintained that any documentary about nature is as much about humanity as it is about plants, animals, and the “world outside.” Each nature film tells us something about nature just as it does about the humans making the documentary about it. Grizzly Man drives this point home not only through telling Treadwell’s story, but also through Herzog’s complex relationship with his subject.