Werner Herzog is most well-known for many for his matter-of-fact, bleak philosophizing on humanity (see his Twitter account for evidence) and modern society as well as his distinct, almost cartoony German accent. For those not initiated into his filmmaking, at times, you are not missing out. Herzog has made some crazy stuff you are either going to absolutely hate or fully embrace due to its artistic and subjective content. However, he has made a name for himself over the past decade or so for his documentary story-telling that has taken him some unique and strange places.
After 2004’s The White Diamond, a documentary about an odd airship designed by an eccentric airship engineer, Dr. Graham Dorrington that was widely praised, In 2005, Herzog made the moving and equally interesting character story of Timothy Treadwell, the documentary Grizzly Man. Treadwell spent thirteen summers in the wilderness of the Katami National Park and Preserve in Alaska living, studying, and filming the wildlife, but most notably the grizzly bears, of the preserve. He founded Grizzly People, a movement devoted to protecting bears and preserving their habitat, as well as becoming a celebrity for his educational tours of schools and even appearing on Late Night with David Letterman talking about his experiences. After living for fifteen years among the bears, he was killed, along with his girlfriend and fellow activist Amie Huguenard. Herzog puts together a story of his life, his activism, and his summers spend with the grizzlies, and is a delicate and human portrait of a man who lived his life among the beauty and danger of wild nature.
Herzog is not satisfied to glorify what Treadwell did, incredibly dangerous but admirable work, but unearths the human behind the persona and frames his life, personality, and relationships around his work. Treadwell’s lie, work, and death in the wilderness of Katami National Park are a fitting metaphor for his life, and Herzog is careful to walk the fine line of exploiting the celebrity and headline grabbing death and over-sentimentalizing Treadwell’s warm personality and passionate lobbying for grizzly bears and nature.
The most fascinating element of this movie is the clashing of Treadwell’s philosophy and Herzog’s. As mentioned previously, Herzog is a very bleak, almost nihilistic man with a negative view of humanity, as well as the natural world. However, where he sees chaos, finitude, and grim reality, Treadwell sees love, infinity, and beauty. Herzog could have easily painted Treadwell as a foolish ideologue with a naive, rosy picture of life and nature (he does narrate something close to this at point), but his film does not go there. The movie is a character portrait of someone who stylized his image for modern society, but wanted nothing more than to find acceptance, love, and his own humanity among the grizzlies.
At one point, Treadwell confesses to not being sure if there is a God, but that if there is , He would be pleased with his work among the bears. At times, I can see a fatherly and God-like love for the animals in Timothy, and there is a hint in the film that God might just be smiling down on what he does. Herzog leaves it up for the viewer to decide their own opinion, and that is why we recommend it to you. Let us know what you think and happy weekend watching!
I caught this a few years ago and remember staying very interested throughout. Good recommendation. I remember Herzog being respectful of the family and not playing the audio from Treadwell’s death, is that right?
I was surprised at how he managed to tell this story about a guy who was legit crazy without making it seem irreverent…
Yeah, in the movie he has this really touching moment with Treadwell’s closest friend telling her to never listen to the audio of the attack and to destroy it as well as never seeing the crime scene photos. Herzog listens to the audio and is trying his best not to cry and then shares that with her. Made me like Herzog a little more, even though he and I would never see eye to eye on existential or ontological issues.