“I love them with all my heart, I will protect them, I will die for them. But I will not die at their paws and claws”
These are the tragic words of Timothy Treadwell that open Werner Herzog’s documentary ‘Grizzly Man’, and they are dripping with dramatic irony. He speaks of the power he feels he has, and the love he has for all his animal friends. He calls himself the caretaker of the bears, and revels in watching them, caring for them, and “touching their poop”. Treadwell was a bear enthusiast and environmentalist who spent thirteen summers filming and living with bears, before he and his girlfriend were tragically killed by one in 2003. Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary details the life, work and death of this unique individual, and is very strong in his execution.
One key strength is the fair, unbiased narration given Herzog. He is respectful of Treadwell, calling him a “brilliant filmmaker”. But he also admits that he disagrees with some of his actions. Treadwell was in total denial about the animal worlds, believing that all animals lived together in harmony, while Herzog confesses that he believes it relies on “chaos, hostility and murder”.
Herzog is also fair in the mix of footage that he uses in the film. While most of the found footage is of Treadwell speaking about life and love, there are moments when a darker side of his personality shine through. One key piece is as he sits in a tent, screaming about needing rain for ‘his’ bears to drink. He becomes intensely angry, shouting to “Christ-man, or Allah, or Hindu floaty-thing; Let’s have some f*cking water for these animals!” Herzog also reveals that Treadwell wrote in his diary that his girlfriend, also killed in the attack, was afraid of bears. These moments hint at a self-centered, obnoxious man that was cruel to anyone but the bears, and it is their inclusion that makes the film so strong. This film isn’t one of martyrdom, or idolisation. This film is an unbiased and well-rounded documentary, that reveals many different sides to the character of Treadwell.
One minor note to add about the film is that sometimes I felt that Herzog tried to add drama where it was not needed. The strength of the film is the ambiguity, where all the footage is simply presented and your own emotional response is possible. However, there are moments where Herzog tries to ramp up the drama, such as when he listens to the tape of Treadwell dying in front of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, or when he begins to speculate whether a bear on film was the one that killed Treadwell. Moments like this felt slightly misguided, and began to stick out in an otherwise ambiguous documentary. Thankfully, he chose not to include anything gratuitous of the death, which he explained in a separate interview with Mark Kermode was to protect the “dignity and privacy of a person’s death”.
On a whole, I felt that the film was very strong. Though a little bloated, it is respectful of the subject, well balanced and well judged, providing tragedy and entertainment in equal measures. With an great mix of Treadwell’s own footage and interviews with those involved in his life, it is a fitting legacy to this unique environmentalist, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.