Is Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” the best movie of the last decade?

Is Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” the best movie of the last decade?

I have no reason to write about Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. I happen to have just seen it for the third time, but that’s purely a coincidence. I’m writing about it because I want to, and because I think it just may be the best film of the last decade.

Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, an eccentric diver-turned-actor-turned-environmentalist who spent 13 summers living among grizzly bears in Alaska parkland. Treadwell captured over 100 hours of video during his time in the bush, and Herzog culled the most telling moments from that footage for the documentary, which also draws on Herzog’s interviews with Treadwell’s friends and family.

Herzog establishes Treadwell’s character with a well-chosen opening shot in which Treadwell, directly addressing the camera as was his wont, describes himself as a noble warrior who has won the bears’ trust and is working to defend them from human encroachment. For the naïve viewer, what’s most immediately striking is the 40-ish Treadwell’s cartoonishly youthful aspect, with a floppy blond haircut (aptly described by a friend as being in the style of Prince Valiant) and a frenetic, high-pitched voice not a little reminiscent of Pee-Wee Herman. One Alaska native speculates that the bears hesitated to devour Treadwell because they regarded him as mentally unwell.

Treadwell was, of course, mentally unwell…but aren’t we all? He struggled with depression and drug abuse in his younger years before discovering his life in the wilderness, which he tearfully confesses brought him back from the brink. His delusion that the bears (and foxes) “needed” him served the purpose of motivating him to ditch the bottle and work for a cause; even though he may have done the bears more harm than good by teaching them to trust humans, he did become deeply familiar with the bears’ nature and enthusiastically shared his knowledge with thousands of schoolchildren.

It’s established early on that Treadwell did in fact die at the claws of a bear, a fate he shared with an appropriately fearful girlfriend who was nonetheless accompanying him. Herzog presents evidence that makes the death look almost like a suicide: Treadwell spoke frequently of the possibility of such a death and often remarked to his friends that it would be an outcome he would very contentedly accept. On the occasion of his death, he specifically courted disaster by camping late in the fall, a time when he knew bears would be desperately hungry and particularly dangerous. Astonishingly, Treadwell captured audio (though not video) of the attack, and Herzog shows us the face of Treadwell’s longest-tenured lover as she silently watches Herzog listen to the recording.

Herzog, of course, brings his own history to the film; it’s no surprise that the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo was drawn to Treadwell’s story. Herzog’s greatest films dramatize the noble futility of man’s struggle against the elements, and in Grizzly Man he frankly tells the viewer that he disagrees with his subject’s view that peace and love are the linchpins of Earthly life. “I believe the common character of the universe,” intones Herzog in his thick German accent, “is not harmony but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

While Herzog’s tangential comments on Treadwell’s virtues as a filmmaker are a slightly wearying aspect of what is otherwise a completely gripping film, the fact that Herzog inserts himself so directly into the documentary appropriately underlines the parallels between his work as an artist and Treadwell’s work as a mythologizer. Treadwell was very deliberate in his filmmaking, shooting several takes of his on-camera narrations and portraying himself as utterly alone even on the occasions where he had company. The documentary Burden of Dreams makes clear that Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo laid a veneer of fiction over what was essentially a documentary about the director’s own attempt to actually perform the feat the obsessive central character performs: pulling a steamship over a hill, which Herzog did without recourse to special effects.

Treadwell’s attempts to add fictional elements to the documentary record of his stays in the wilderness are ironic in light of the fact that Treadwell’s entire, apparently sincere, account of the significance of his presence there was a total fiction from the get-go. The bears were not actually threatened by poachers, and even if they had been, Treadwell was in no position to protect them. (When a boatload of men land on shore with ambiguous designs, the unarmed Treadwell cowers in the bushes.)

What makes Treadwell such a compelling character is the poignant contrast between the extremely real circumstances of his life in the wilderness (it doesn’t get any more real than being eaten by a bear) and the totally contrived nature of the story he told himself about it. In the Alaskan outback, Treadwell essentially found a glorious stage upon which he could project his fantasy about living a profound, meaningful life without interference by the doubters and realists whom he openly mocks. Again and again, including mere hours before his death, he tells the camera how profoundly happy he is in his life with the bears.

There are people who manage to live a complete fiction without leaving human society; I think, for example, of certain members of my grad school’s science fiction association who treated the campus like it was a giant Renaissance Festival. But really, isn’t there some Timothy Treadwell in all of us, even those of us who don’t speak fluent Klingon? Don’t all of us, to some extent, use the indisputably real circumstances of our lives as the backdrop for a self-narrated story in which things appear in the light we wish them to appear, in which our actions are uniquely consequential and the beings around us grateful for our kind service to their welfare?

No? Okay, maybe it’s just me. If that’s the case, I’ll just quietly count myself fortunate that the stage for my own personal delusions includes a warm bed and a cold beer rather than a collapsed tent and a teddy bear.

Jay Gabler

Adapted from a post originally published in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.