Grizzly Man: Herzog’s Docu of Timothy Treadwell’s Life and Death

In “Grizzly Man,” German director Werner Herzog explores the life and death of American Timothy Treadwell, the amateur grizzly bear expert and wildlife preservationist.

Probing the mysteries of human versus wild nature, Herzog uses Treadwell’s own footage to paint a nuanced portrait of a complex figure, while exploring larger questions about the relationship between man and nature. Premiering at the 2005 Sundance Festival, “Grizzly Man” was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Award.

Treadwell lived unarmed among the bears for 13 summers, and filmed his adventures in the wild during his final 5 seasons. In October 2003, Treadwell’s remains, along with those of girlfriend Amie Huguenard, were discovered near their campsite in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Reserve. They had been mauled and devoured by a grizzly, the first known victims of a bear attack in the park. The bear suspected of the killings was later shot by park officials.

As a founder of the organization Grizzly People, Treadwell devoted his life to the preservation of bears, co-authored a book with Jewel Palovak, Among Grizzlies, and educated schoolchildren about bears. Treadwell also used his charisma and celebrity to spread the grizzly gospel, appearing on TV shows, in which he always downplayed the dangers of his encounters.

The docu raises the poignant questions of whether Timothy Treadwell was a passionate and fearless environmentalist who devoted his life to living peacefully among Alaskan grizzly bears in order to save them Or was he a deluded misanthrope whose reckless actions resulted in his own death, as well as that of his girlfriend.

Treadwell’s unorthodox methods were controversial. Locals say that by living among the grizzlies he was crossing a line that had been respected by native Alaskans. Wildlife experts express concerns that by taking away the bears’ natural fear of humans–and portraying the animals as cuddly–he was doing them more harm than good. And while one of the reasons for his Alaska trips was to protect grizzlies from poachers, park officials contend that poaching was never a serious threat to the grizzlies living in the Kodiak archipelago.

Basic aspects of Treadwell’s life remain shrouded in mystery. He lied about his background even to his close friends, claiming to be Australian rather than the product of a New York middle-class family. He also had a history of drug and alcohol problems and had several run-ins with the law, before devoting his career, which he credited with turning his life around.

At the center of the docu is footage of grizzlies hunting, playing, and fighting just feet from Treadwell and his camera. Treadwell shot these scenes over his last five visits to the Alaskan wilderness, with the intention of creating a wildlife docu. Even more fascinating are the times when Treadwell turns the camera on himself, alternately testifying to his zealous love for the grizzlies and revealing less desirable human emotions, such as vanity, rage, paranoia, and loneliness.

To provide a larger perspective, Herzog interviews Treadwell’s friends, family, and colleagues as well as environmentalists and wildlife experts, whose opinions about Treadwell vary widely.

Treadwell made his first trip to Alaska in the summer of 1989, when he viewed grizzly bears at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. The experience so inspired him that he chose to dedicate his life to the protection of bears. By 1992, he was camping in Katmai National Park and Reserve, living among the bears. During the first decade, Treadwell chronicled his observations in diaries and photographs.

In 1999, Minolta loaned video cameras to Grizzly People, the organization Treadwell had co-established with colleague Jewel Palovak, allowing Treadwell to capture life in Katmai in unprecedented ways. The footage shot over the course of 5 years is the backbone of Herzog’s documentary, which tells the story of a self-taught naturalist and adventurer.

Throughout his career, Herzog has gravitated to stories about individuals who stand apart from mainstream society, often risking their lives in pursuing personal,idiosyncratic goals. “Grizzly Man”‘s Treadwell belongs to the tradition of driven Herzog protagonists in such narratives as “Aguiree, the Wrath of God” (1972) and Fitzcarraldo” (1982), and in documentaries, such as “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner” (1973) and “Little Dieter Need to Fly” (1997).

In these features and docus, Herzog has produced some of the most striking and poetic images in cinema history. A visionary blessed with a unique way of looking, Herzog has been exploring the line between human beings and the natural world for a long time. He has shown great passion and understanding for larger-than-life characters, bringing them to life in the most vivid way.

Treadwell’s chronicle goes beyond the realm of nature film of the National Geographic kind, since he recorded everything that was happening to him. Inadvertently or purposely, he was filming this Joseph Conrad-like epic of a man under pressure, coming apart in the wilderness. Some of Treadwell’s sequences are incorporated intact, as they are, including one scene in which he angrily demands rain from God, Jesus, Allah and “the Hindu floaty thing;” miraculously, the rain arrives!

Without much editorializing, “Grizzly Man” reveals a man who was both frightening and enchanting–much like the untamed world he loved. Herzog shows parallels between Treadwell’s personality and nature. A wild animal in his own way, Treadwell was charming and warm, dark and turbulent. Herzog makes us see both the beauty and the darkness in Treadwell’s lifestyle.

Herzog uses some discretion in the use of footage. Hence, he decides that the last moments of those thirteen years should remain private. When the fatal attack occurred Treadwell’s camera was switched on; the lens cap was not removed but the audio rolled. Most of the bears that knew Treadwell were in hibernation caves, but several wilder ones prowled the reserve, one of which might have attacked the adventurer and his girlfriend.

The mystery is unraveled backwards, from Treadwell’s death to his earlier years and the past he had hidden for years. Herzog’s narration adds another layer, offering his own thoughts on Treadwell and his concept of nature. In several sections, however, Herzong mythologizes the man, perhaps out of respect for Treadwell’s deep desire to be a movie star and celeb before he discovered bears.

The film’s ironies don’t escape Herzog. Thus, Treadwell’s adventure resulted in the shooting of a bear he swore to protect. And there’s also the issue of selecting oneself as a protector of wild life, and the responsibilities that come with it; imagine if many people pursued Treadwell’s line.

The subject might prove to be too singular and bizarre for some audiences. Treadwell comes across as a self-absorbed, disturbed individual, unabashedly motivated by celebrity status seeking. Treadwell’s exploits lead to appearances on popular TV shows, like David Letterman’s.

Viewers will be left with bad taste in their mouth after hearing Letterman’s prophetic comment, whether we should expect a newspaper headline about Tredawell eaten by a grizzly bear.
One gets the impression that Treadwell considerws death by a grizzly attack to be more desirable than dying as an ordinary man living an anonymous life.