Here’s another example of how the documentary format quite often offers more drama and humanism than fiction. Werner Herzog’s much lauded Grizzly Man arrives in the UK after international acclaim and it’s bound to please fans of the veteran German director who began his career with the New German cinema of the 1970s. Herzog has always been fascinated by individuals with an obstinate sense of mission in the middle of nature and Grizzly Man fits right in Herzog’s vast oeuvre, which includes classics like Fitzcarraldo and Aguire: The Wrath of God. But what is most impressive is that he managed to make a film completely his own despite the fact that Grizzly Man was assembled out of video footage shot by the man who is the subject of the film, except for a few segments shot by Herzog himself. He showed with this film what a good director with a sense of integrity can achieve with even an amateur source.
Grizzly Man is Timothy Treadwell, on the surface quite a typical American blonde dude who, after a failed attempt at acting – he used to say he lost the part in the sitcom Cheers that went to Woody Harrelson – proclaimed himself the guardian of the grizzly bears of the Katami National Park in Alaska. For eleven years, up to his death in October 2003, Treadwell would camp out in the park to ‘protect’ and study the bears that became his reason to live. He become a minor celebrity in the process, the subject of a Discovery Channel series and even appeared in the David Letterman show as a guest. During those years he shot over 100 hours of footage.
Because of the unpredicted outcome of Treadwell’s ursine saga, what we see is a very uncensored presentation of himself, often ranting, babbling and indulging in his puerile, Disneyfied vision of nature. Herzog constructed the film in such a way to create a compassionate portrait of a man. The film inspires sympathy and Treadwell’s seeming lunacy comes across as a synthesis of modern misanthropy and discontent with the world as it is. The Western world is full of Timothy Treadwells and this is what makes this film so compelling as well as poignant.
Clearly, Herzog was not interested in exploiting the memory of a man who met a gruesome death in the hands of one of the animals he sought to protect; he was more interested in this man’s symbolic search for communion with nature, which achieves a disastrously ironic culmination when gets devoured by a bear desperate for food before hibernation.
Extremely humane and impartial, Herzog comes across as a compassionate director with a philosophical clarity about the relationship between nature and man. It’s a very eloquent film, full of unforgettable imagery and meditations on our place on this planet. In two words: utterly relevant.
Grizzly Man is released on 03/02/06