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Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)


    Veteran director Werner Herzog finds factual subject matter that feels right up his thematic alley in Grizzly Man. Working from footage taped by Timothy Treadwell, a man who took it upon himself to live with grizzly bears for thirteen consecutive summers in an attempt to “protect” the animals from a danger that doesn’t seem to exist, Herzog finds something of a  So-Cal stand-in for Klaus Kinski, the director’s frequent, seemingly mad lead actor. Like Kinksi, however, Treadwell is at best an acquired taste. A rambunctious and slightly unhinged personality, he is such a grating screen presence that it’s no surprise that audiences turn against him and soon begin to root for the bears that would eventually devour him. One doesn’t exactly envy Herzog, who suffered through the 100 hours of footage Treadwell shot while making this film. The director stresses the ironies of the scenario (e.g. Treadwell gets a bear killed by being eaten by it.) and uses the man’s failure as an opportunity to stress his own bleak worldview and downbeat outlook on both man and nature. In the film’s best passages, Herzog, through voiceover narrative, actively engages in a debate with the footage. As much as he might appreciate Treadwell as a filmmaker (his immersion in his location leads to a few gorgeous moments), he finds the man’s sentimentalized view of nature to be absurd.


    This pessimistic stance has perhaps been the dominant theme throughout Herzog’s career.  Ironically, though, despite Herzog’s nihilistic embrace of chaos, the scene in which Herzog is permitted access to the recording of the actual slaying is a testament to the director’s humane integrity. Midway through listening, he asks for the tape to be turned off, and then advises its owner (a close friend of Treadwell’s) to destroy it so that her healing process might begin. One could imagine most other, more manipulative documentarians salivating over it, possibly including it as a finale to their film, but Herzog, who similarly spares us from the coroner’s photographs that he’s seen, genuinely respects his subject, however much he might criticize his actions. That being said, it’s inescapable that Treadwell’s work would be of little interest to the average viewer if Herzog didn’t intervene. Herzog’s inescapable imposition of himself on Treadwell’s life salvages the man’s life work, relaying his questionable message to a larger audience than Treadwell could ever have achieved on his own. Because of this infusion of value, the homage to the man ends up feeling less like a meditation on the nature of this particular man than an inquisition into the makeup of mankind.




Jeremy Heilman