Shortly after Grizzly Man begins we learn the fate of its central figure. Timothy Treadwell, a man who has dedicated his life to “protecting” bears, and his girlfriend are going to be mauled, killed, and eaten by one of the animals which he so deeply loved. Grizzly Man falls into the typically Herzogian theme of a man with an obsession. But unlike his other films, which simply view the central character in an omnipresent sort of way, Grizzly Man puts us inside the head and mind of the obsessed man. At some point in the film you are going to snap back to reality, realizing that for the past forty minutes or so you have been inside the mind of a madman. Which, I assure you, Timothy Treadwell was a lunatic. From the word go you can see it in his eyes. I shared a similar thought about Klaus Kinski in the Herzog film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). In fact, without naming names, Herzog says that he has seen the sort of craziness displayed by Treadwell before. It is very clear that he is talking about Kinski.
Timothy Treadwell, for something like twelve years, would go out into the Alaskan wilderness every summer and live among the bears. He had a few scares, some of which are shown in this movie, but for the most part he always remained unharmed. He kept extensive video diaries, along with a written journal, which he shot and maintained as if he were on a nature documentary on Animal Planet. It seems that Treadwell wanted nothing more than to be on TV, and he thought that making a nature documentary about such an insane subject would be the way to go. That said, it must be made clear that Treadwell, in no way, shape, or form, thought he was doing anything insane or wrong. In fact, he seems to think it perfectly normal, as crazy people tend to do. Herzog’s film is pieced together from the footage Treadwell shot, as well as photographs and interviews put together by Herzog and his team.
I suspect there are two primary reasons Herzog was attracted to this project, and I think the similarity between Treadwell and Kinski is only the surface one. The other reason relates back to something I wrote about in a piece of Herzog’s online class. In his class he requires all of his students to read a book entitled The Peregrine written by J.A. Baker. This book is the diary of a birdwatcher who becomes obsessed with peregrine falcons. At various points in the book Baker writes characteristics to himself that make him seem bird-like, and by the end of the book he almost seems to become one with the falcon with which he is obsessed. This brings us back to Grizzly Man, in which we find a man who repeats over and over that he wishes he were a bear. At one point, during an interview, a state park ranger even says that Treadwell, if he met a camper out on a trail, would turn around and grunt — “vocalize” is the word used, as I recall — toward the stranger like a bear would when surprised. So, it is my opinion, that at the heart of Grizzly Man, is this Herzogian theme of man wishing to become one with nature, but being unable to fully do so. J.A. Baker could never become a bird, of course, no matter how much he may have wished it; he would never gain the freedom offered by flight. Well, by that same token, Timothy Treadwell would never become a bear, he would, however, meet his end by one.
Timothy, during one part of the film, laments the death of a young bear cub, killed by an older male bear. The male bears kill the cubs in order to force the females to stop lactating so they will go back into heat and be willing to mate again. It’s a cruel system, but the bears don’t care, and this should serve as a reminder of how nature works. Around the same point in the film Treadwell also cries over a dead fox puppy, which he was “friends” with. He very clearly does not understand why this animal died. Herzog, in narration, reminds us that nature is cruel, cannot be tamed, and points out that this was Treadwell’s fatal misunderstanding. Herzog, as much as he seems to admire the dedication Treadwell had toward these animals, is level-headed enough to understand that man and nature cannot cohabitate in the way Treadwell longed for. Just as the film began, here Herzog reminds us once again that these bears will take Treadwell’s life. The reason’s a man would do such a thing are left on the fringes in this film. Herzog dances around it, but he offers no explanation. I have my suspicions, however. During one interview Treadwell’s parents talk about their son’s former drug and alcohol addiction. Apparently he had been an actor in a few commercials and even some bit parts on television. According to their story he even auditioned for the part that would eventually go to Woody Harrelson on Cheers. The loss of this role was, apparently, enough to push Treadwell into the depths of his addiction. Later on, during on of his video diaries, Treadwell talks to a wild fox (which is practically in his lap, by the way) and tells it about his time as an addict. He claims the bears saved his life. Keep in mind this video diary is being put together by a man in the middle of nowhere, by himself, talking to a fox, in front of a camera, filming what he hoped would become a nature documentary. Going back to what I said earlier, I think Treadwell’s ambition was to get on television. This isn’t to deny his love of the bears or even his wish to educate people about bears, but there was obviously a wish for people to know who he was.
However, I question his methods. As much as he claimed he wanted to protect the bears, their habitat, and to educate people about the bears, I’m not sure how his presence did very much. At best all he did was make the bears comfortable with the presence of a human, which means they won’t be scared of humans, which means they will come closer to humans, which ultimately puts both the humans and the bears in danger. But Herzog, along with some of the interviewees in the film, seems to share this train of thought. But this is all secondary to the quality of the film as a documentary, and make no mistake Grizzly Man is a fine documentary. It is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen. I find the need to compare it to a film like Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, dir. David Gelb), which is about a world famous sushi chef. That film is like watching a finely tuned instrument create wonderful pieces of delicious art over and over again. Grizzly Man, on the other hand, is like watching a horrific train wreck in slow-motion. Because we know the fate of Timothy Treadwell, and because we can see the insanity in his eyes, we find ourselves glued to the screen and unable to look away.
In The Peregrine, I think Herzog found a man who had a healthy, if obsessive, attachment to nature. His love of birds did him nor anyone else any harm. In particular he never harmed or interfered with the birds and their lives. But in Timothy Treadwell we find a man who’s obsession drove him to the brink of destruction, right to the edge of the knife, and then pushed him over to his doom. Treadwell’s death was not videotaped, but the sound was recorded by the camera. At one point in the film Herzog listens to this tape. Thankfully he spares us the horrific nightmare of having to listen to the man and his girlfriend being killed. Even when Treadwell himself lacked all tact and commonsense, Herzog remains objective enough to do so himself. He shows us very uncomfortable things, but he never shows us anything damaging.
Grizzly Man is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. Go watch it immediately.