The Rise and Fall of an Animal Lover By Nils Vermund Gjerstad

in 8th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Nils Gjerstad

Critically acclaimed German director Werner Herzog is known for his exploration of human eccentrics in his films, and also for providing majestic landscapes as a backdrop for his cinematical dramas, whether they are feature films (Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972)) or documentaries (e.g. My Dearest Enemy (Mein liebster Fiend, 1999)). In Grizzly Man, he combines these two talents in a fascinating way. Not surprisingly this film has received a lot of attention from people who have seen it. Discussion groups on the internet for cineastes even raise the question – whether Grizzly Man is a fake documentary.

Herzog has more than 100 hours of amateur video tape from a deceased American amateur film photographer by the name of Timothy Treadwell. The material has been provided to Herzog by Treadwell’s former girlfriend who inherited his tapes. Treadwell spent his last 13 summers together with grizzly bears in Alaska. In October 2003 he was killed by a bear. Herzog was contacted to edit the material and make it into a movie.

In addition to the original tapes, Herzog has also added his own material, where he re-visits the landscapes in which Treadmill spent his summers. He has also interviewed people who knew or has an interesting opinion on Treadwell. Sometimes Herzog comments on his behaviour, but he is very careful to point out what is his opinion, in an attempt to respect and understand the protagonist.

The film starts off with a scene where Timothy is placed right in front of his Mini DV-camera, commenting on the bears playing behind him. The majestic Alaskan mountains and lakes add a beautiful background to the scene. It is a romantic moment, so typical for Timothy Treadwell’s excursions. Consequently, Herzog confronts us with the grim realities of Timothy’s death. Herzog even interviewed the coroner who examined the mutilated corpses of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Anne Huguenard, who came along on his last trips. The knowledge of the gruesome end stays with the viewer as one gets to know more and more about this intriguing character.

In order to re-examine Treadwell’s past Herzog has included interviews with people who both loved and loathed him. A Native American scientist comments that Timothy crossed a line between man and the beasts that have been respected by her people for thousands of years. Through his dialogues Herzog discovers that Timothy was a failed actor, and that he experimented with drugs, and nearly overdosed.

In the aftermath he wanted to pursue a new lifestyle, and consequently started to visit grizzly bears in their own environment. It is, however, the footage provided by Treadwell himself that dominates the production. Mostly Herzog lets Treadwell’s words and actions speak for themselves, whether he enthusiastically observes the bears play or talks about his personal sex life to them. There are some key scenes in which Herzog makes comments. For example, when Treadwell finds a dead baby bear and seems unable to accept the cruelty of nature.

Herzog’s documentary is a sober approach on an eccentric wildlife. There is, however, some kind of progression in the editing, which more and more reveals the character of Treadwell. At the end of the film there is a scene where he flies into a rage in front of the camera, and tells named persons working in the wildlife park to go f**k themselves.

Herzog comments that he has seen this before and it is actually civilisation itself Treadwell is cursing, not the named persons. But Herzog is very careful not to pass judgment. Of course it is tempting to see Timothy Treadwell as a reject of civilisation, who wanted to escape into a romantic world, where life is joyful and uncomplicated. But this we do not know for certain. The only thing that Grizzly Man makes us certain of is that Timothy Treadwell seriously loved animals, particularly bears.