(2005) dir. Werner Herzog
This is a flawed but amazing documentary about self-proclaimed “Eco-Warrior” and “protector” of Grizzly bears, Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell spent 13 summers in Katmai National Park, Alaska, living among the bears, much more closely and dangerously than any sane person would. He spent his winters teaching children about Grizzlies and trying to drum up support for his efforts. Ultimately, Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by a bear while staying in the “Grizzly Maze”, a densely forested and heavily roamed area of the park.
Treadwell meant well, very very much so, but his actions were criticized by naturalists and scientists even some of the native Alaskans because he crossed numerous boundaries with the animals. Director Werner Herzog notes frequently how Treadwell wanted to be a bear and how he lacked identification with humanity. Treadwell loves the bears deeply and psychotically, even going up and revelling in the warmth of the scat that one of his favorite female bears had just passed, noting that it “had just been inside her” and “was a part of her”. It’s not hard to guess that Treadwell’s death, winding up literally inside one of the bears, probably had some cosmic satisfaction in a sense, tragic as it was.
Herzog sees a lot in Treadwell’s life. An outsider, lost in the world to drugs and alcohol before discovering the Alaskan wilderness, Treadwell finds a spiritual sustenance in the world of the bears. Herzog also sees Treadwell as a filmmaker, and most of the footage of the film is actually that which Treadwell himself shot, some of which is quite stunning, particularly the brawl between two males over a female.
Herzog has amazing material to work with, great footage, a truly fascinating subject, a tragic human story, the beauty of the animals and the Alaskan country. Treadwell is clearly a subject that Herzog identifies with on some deep metaphysical level, and the big problem of the film is that Herzog tells us, quite literally tells us what he thinks. He notes how the chaos of the ice and snow on the other side of the mountains to him is a metaphor for Timothy Treadwell’s chaotic soul. He tells us what he thinks of humanity, how it differs from Treadwell. And the worst part is when he puts himself in the film, listening (inaudibly to the audience) to the audio tape of Treadwell and his girlfriend being killed, and then telling Treadwell’s friend that she should destroy the tape. Herzog’s strong German accent narrates the film and I think that some of the personal qualities that come through have meaningful reverberations. But there are numerous times that it’s just invasive and awkward.
He gets some really strange interviews with people, too. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy tells the details of the attack in an utterly bizarre fashion, so mannered and quirky, like something right out of David Lynch. Actually, almost all of the interviews that Herzog films are weird in this way to an extent.
This film, however, is stunning. Treadwell’s story is sad and amazing. He found his personal redemption in communing with the bears and the foxes. His overall lack of understanding of environmental issues around his beloved grizzlies is a great irony. Treadwell was off-center but passionate and gentle, telling the bears “I love you” in his high-pitched voice like one would with a pet cat. There are aspects of egomania in his self-promotion and lifestyle, too.
The bears themselves are amazing, too. There are two grizzlies at the San Francisco Zoo that were rescued from being euthanized because they were making trouble in their home in Yellowstone. They are my favorite animals at the zoo. Though the bears are sort of the co-stars of this film, their beauty and power are explicitly displayed.
A really great film.