"I will protect these bears with my last breath"
Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss)’s 2005 Documentary takes the footage taken by Timothy Treadwell, who lived with and was killed and eaten by bears in Alaska in 2003 and tries to assemble his reasons for doing what he did. Although the film has the look of a nature documentary, it is in fact the study of a man and perhaps mankind as a whole. Herzog compiled the film from 100 hours of footage, shot by Treadwell over the thirteen summers he spent studying and living with the bears.
Many of Herzog’s feature films carry the theme of an obsessed man who sets off on high risk journeys in order to accomplish seemingly impossible feats. This trend continues in
Treadwell even has a similar haircut and manner of Klaus Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo
in the film of the same name. Treadwell
openly shuns the outside ‘human’ world and believes it is his duty and right to
live with and protect the bears. He feels as though he is the only one who can
save them despite the fact that they live on protected park land. It is obvious
from the film’s outset that Treadwell is much more at home in the wilderness,
surrounded by bears than in human society and it often comes across in his
footage that he believes he is a bear or can, at the very least understand and
be understood by them. Herzog states that he believes Treadwell was wrong in
this respect and sees in the bear’s eyes nothing but the disinterested look of
nature. Grizzly Man.
Herzog does not use footage of Treadwell’s death in the film, instead allowing the story to be told by a mixture of friends, relatives and experts. These interviews allow us to get to know Treadwell and help us to understand why he shunned humanity in favour of a dangerous life with bears. Herzog is seen on camera listening to the footage of Treadwell and his companion Amie Huguenard’s deaths and is seen to break down, asking for the audio to be stopped. In this emotional and deeply distressing scene he then tells Treadwell’s friend Jewel Palovak never to listen to what he has just heard and urges her to have the tape destroyed. In the next scene we see footage taken by Treadwell of two male bears locked in an incredibly ferocious fight in which fur is ripped from their skin and floats away on the wind. This scene is perhaps as powerful as if we had heard the footage ourselves as the bears’ strength and ferocity is obvious to behold. Their power is terrifying yet Treadwell stands just feet away. It is a chilling and upsetting scene.
Amie Huguenard, the woman who died by Treadwell’s side is somewhat of an enigma. To maintain the idea that he was alone in the wild, she only appears on camera on two occasions, both times with her face quite eerily but unintentionally covered as if she never wanted to be seen. Her reasons for staying with Treadwell despite her open fear of bears and need to get back to LA for a job remain one of the many mysteries of the film and of Treadwell’s life as a whole.
Herzog delves into Treadwell’s psyche and provides opinions about his subject. He comes to the conclusion that Treadwell may have had a death wish towards the end of his life, a theory that is supported by some of Treadwell’s piece to camera footage. What is clear is that Treadwell was a deeply disturbed man who had a belief that it was his job to protect and even befriend the bears despite the obvious danger they posed to him. He also had a quite obvious hatred of humanity and its excesses.
The film is quite a shocking study of two people’s demise. From the very first minutes you can tell that it is only a matter of time before Treadwell is attacked. The whole world can see it but him. He was blinded by his love of the animals and believed wrongly that they loved him in return. Herzog does a fantastic job of presenting Treadwell’s footage, some of which contains great beauty but much of it, great sadness. There are obvious parallels between Herzog’s obsessions and Treadwell’s which gives the film an extra angle with which to view it. This is a somber piece but one that I’d recommend wholeheartedly.