The wild at heart frequently take the path to self-destruction. They are vulnerable to their great elations. Their intense natural desire to break free, explore, and conquer often makes them face their own mortality. These individuals are the heroic failures, the foolish idealists, the ruined champions of humankind. Werner Herzog’s spellbinding documentary, Grizzly Man, shows the life and work of one such daring and defeated man, Timothy Treadwell.
Timothy Treadwell was a self-appointed environmentalist who spent thirteen summers living among grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness. He videotaped these bears in unmatchable, dramatic hours of footage before he and his girlfriend were ripped apart and killed by a bear in 2003. It is not surprising that Herzog chose Treadwell’s story for his film. Extremist men who live on the edge and tease the boundaries of life are always a matter of interest to the great German director.
Herzog makes this a visually enchanting film by using the best of bear footage captured by Treadwell. There are gorgeous sights of bears catching salmon, having awe-inspiring fights, and swimming in the waters while putting their feet up to relax. The director intersperses Treadwell’s footage with interviews by people who knew him closely, with expert opinions, and with his own astute meditations as narrator of the film.
It is clear from the start that Treadwell’s cause and concern were the bears. During his exhilarating excursion, he spends his time with them as “a kind warrior.” He is observant, thoughtful, and persevering. He gives the bears nicknames, expresses his unconditional love for them, and pats their noses in care, love, and lunacy. Treadwell believes the big, brown beasts are his best buddies. However, we never once see a hint of familial understanding and kinship between the bears themselves, let alone a respectable friendship between Treadwell and the untamed creatures. He believed he was in the wilderness to educate the public and protect the bears. But in fact, we observe no apparent threat to the bears in their land. It is likely that he had, unbeknownst to himself, reached out to these animals in pursuing his own reckless ecstasies. In doing so, as Werzog rightly points out, he crossed an invisible borderline.
During his last two or three years in grizzly wilderness, Treadwell was joined by his girlfriend, Amie Huguenar. Huguenar, who was killed along with Treadwell, remains a mystery in the film. Her family refused to appear on camera, and Huguenar herself remains hidden in the footage. In over a hundred hours of Treadwell’s raw video, she appears exactly two times, and we never see her face clearly.
During the fatal attack, the lens was capped on Treadwell’s camera. The tape had been turned on and recorded only audio. It documented the final sounds and screams of Huguenar and Treadwell. Werner appears in the film only once, when he’s allowed to listen to the tape by Treadwell’s close friend, Jewel Palovak. We can see him unnerved and chilled, as he listens to the tape, wearing earphones. He then tells Palovak, “You must never listen to this. You should not keep it. You should destroy it because it will be like the white elephant in your room all your life." Herzog decided against including the tape in the movie. He did so in an endeavor to preserve the privacy and dignity of the individual deaths. Many viewers were left wanting for more, and the director’s decision was questioned time and again. I believe it was a moral and appropriate choice.
Treadwell’s life and death elicited some cold and unjust responses. A few people who were interviewed in the film felt he got what he deserved – he paid the price for venturing into a territory that was left untouched for over 7000 years, and for obvious reasons. This reaction personally shocked and dismayed me. Nobody deserves to be slaughtered, wiped off, eradicated, for paying heed to their perilously adventurous spirit. Nobody deserves such outrageous indifference for nurturing a resistless fascination, or ought to be abolished for being imprudent and pursuing a demented cause or passion.
I should point out here however, that it is evident in the film that Treadwell was no real hero. Through the running commentary in his self-shot footage, we experience a man who was irrational and loony every now and then. He mourns the death of a bumblebee. He furiously rants about an ongoing drought that had deprived the bears of salmon. He plays with a family of coy foxes living in the peninsula. Most absurdly, he touches a heap of bear poop because “it was just inside her… it’s still warm.”
He records and re-records his concluding expedition monologue with a narcissist’s ability. “I have lived longer with wild brown grizzly bears, without weapons, in modern history, than any human on earth. And I remained safe,” Treadwell proclaims into the camera, which in reality, was his only real companion for most of his time in the grizzly maze. We watch him confide and confess to his digital pal as he rambles through his thoughts and scrutinizes his innermost being, his human ghosts, his exaltations. We realize with time, that for him, there was a crueler, more merciless civilization out there: The people's world and civilization. Somewhere near the middle of the film, Herzog investigates Treadwell’s past to reveal an individual who was heavily into alcohol and had a near fatal overdose. We realize that this courageous protector of wild creatures was a man who was harassed, bullied, and intimidated in the human world.
It is Herzog’s expertise as a filmmaker that allows us to go beyond scrutinizing Treadwell’s struggles, failings, and weaknesses. His reflections make us acknowledge Treadwell as somebody who was quintessentially human – a man with all the defects and strengths of a human being, just like all of us. There are moments where he is feeble, like a small bird, and moments where he is majestic, like a fearless fighter.
Treadwell may have been a troubled individual escaping from people, society, and civilization. But he was true to his cause. He had lived a life of ultimate freedom. He had experienced the sublime titillation of being awake, alive, and breathing in raw wilderness, in forbidden frontiers. He was emancipated from a world of material indulgence, conditioned relationships, and conformity.
He had believingly said, "If I don't come back, it's what I want, this is the way I wanna go.” And such a determination deserves acknowledgement and respect. It makes Treadwell worthy of the homage Herzog's film so earnestly gives him.
Watch a trailer for the film here: