By now, 11 years after the initial release of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, many of us already know the story of Timothy Treadwell and his bears. Both a tribute and critique of the subject, the documentary explores a man who at once appeared to know what he wanted but was emotionally lost; a man who met his end in 2003 when he was killed, and eaten, by his beloved bears. Grizzly Man is a simple but thematically intense story as Herzog questions the nature and reality of man in the wild country.
Timothy Treadwell was a child who had no business donning the mantle of a man. He was silly and foolish; his constant exclamations of “I love you” to the bears feel sweet but embarrassing and misguided. In fact, the way he reacts to the brutality and indifference of nature feels astoundingly naïve. When two bears brawl, Herzog manipulates Treadwell’s filmic intentions by inserting the music of cello and upright bass. The result is a foreboding scene, and something that we as the viewer, and as human beings, are fundamentally outside of. These bears have no emotion; they have no concept of violence or brutality. Only they understand why they do as they do, their reasons opaque and distant as the stars.
Treadwell does not see this point of view. After the bears depart, he sets up his camera, the fighting arena as stage. The subject appears gleeful and excited — not in the way nature documentarians are about finally capturing something elusive, but in a way that leads us to believe his excitement comes from the belief that the bears felt something he could relate to. He goes over the area explaining how the energy of the bears altered the landscape… he sees the fight as a visceral expression of himself.
Later, Treadwell finds the corpse of a baby fox and exclaims over the tragedy of its demise. Flies attempt to land on it, but Treadwell swats them away, demanding they have some respect for the dead. In this context, the idea of respect for the dead seems like some insane human nonsense. The fox has died, the flies wish to breed, so continues the circle of life. Never does it stop for anything so silly as ritual or mourning. That, really, is Treadwell’s fundamental disconnect and what lead to his own death. He also believed he had some kind of god-like power over the landscape.
In his tent near the end of the season, Treadwell films himself begging the sky to bring rain to his beloved bears. The intensity of his emotion is embarrassing. He cuddles his childhood teddy bear and we understand that this man comes from a place that has only ever existed in the minds of the very young. We gain some insight into Treadwell when we learn of his past. He battled drugs and alcoholism before devoting his life to the grizzly bears. He bounced from job to job, finding no place where he could be taken seriously, no place where he could feel vital. Among the grizzlies, he felt desired and indispensable. He was eager to protect something important and be seen as important in return. Ironically, the bears resided on protected land. Treadwell was, in fact, the outsider he rallied against, allowing the bears to become acclimatized to humans. What Treadwell really wanted was to give his own life meaning. He projected love and care onto those bears because he needed to feel that. He needed to feel that nature is not indifferent, but harmonious and loving. He lived with those bears so he could be in a place where he was loved. What we see in Treadwell is the purity of the child mind. Maybe he was stupid and reckless, but he believed in these bears in a way that many of us will never believe in anything. It’s enviable and profound. The flip side, however, is that this faith and love derives from desperation. Treadwell was a tortured man, one who spent his whole life trying to belong somewhere. The fact that he ultimately chose to focus all his time on a bear love fantasy is quite selfish and bizarre. It displays an inability to emotionally compromise the way humans do in social groups. Treadwell could be his best and only self with those bears.
Herzog narrates the film throughout and conducts interviews with both Treadwell’s friends and professionals that were forefront at the time of the tragedy. Of particular note is the time spent with Willy Fulton, the pilot that shuttled Treadwell to wild Alaska every summer. Herzog offers the impression that Fulton also saw the delicate beauty and purity of Treadwell’s character, as he doesn’t view him as a man who lost his life out of idiocy, but a person who died because he loved something so deeply it didn’t make any sense. Herzog spends a lot of time during the narration responding to Treadwell’s naivety. Typically, the director speaks in a deadpan manner, which makes his very astute opinions on the chaos and indifference of nature sound like an existential comedy routine. Even so, they are indispensable within the narrative as Treadwell’s story would be borderline incomprehensible without cooler heads commentating.
It’s a mistake to view Treadwell’s life and eventual death as tragedy. He died doing the only thing that meant something to him. Among the bears, he felt love and acceptance. Whether or not he was foolish or misguided is something others decided for him. In his mind, he was righteous, he was good, and he was faithful.
Faith is an admirable quality in the age of secular reasoning. How can a person believe in something that is not there? Only with their whole hearts.
Lex Corbett (@trazism) is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Toronto, Ontario. She studied cinema, both theoretical and practical, at the University of Toronto and OCAD U, respectively, and currently enamoured with the films of both the American Independent Cinema and Alfred Hitchcock.