Title: Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Timothy Tredwell
In his films, German director Werner Herzog loves to exalt and focus on the natural beauty of the wild. He loves to impress us with the most wondrous locations and vistas in his films, as if saying “See? You don’t need to spend millions of dollars building sets! It’s all out there for us in nature! For free!” Many of his productions have been filmed in the wildest and most outlandish locations, from the dense rain forests of the Peruvian jungle, to Brazil, Colombia and Ghana. For this reason I find it fitting that it was Werner Herzog who ended up making Grizzly Man. This documentary takes place almost entirely in the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, amongst the grizzly bears and the foxes, and one Timothy Tredwell.
Director Werner Herzog
Most of this documentary was shot by Timothy Tredwell, a bear enthusiast. The rest of the documentary is Herzog interviewing people and friends who knew Tredwell personally. If you ask me, I think he was more then a bear enthusiast. He was also an extreme environmentalist, an “eco warrior” and by pure happenstance he also became a documentary filmmaker. He wanted to become an actor, but he failed at that. According to the documentary Tredwell’s parents mention that he did audition for a role in the popular 80’s sitcom Cheers, but he was beaten by Woody Harrelson for the part. That destroyed him, and he became a drug addict. He ended up almost dying from a heroin overdose. After that, he decided to do something positive with his life, so he decided to go live amongst the bears in the wild. Once he had his first encounter with a bear, he knew that that’s what he wanted to do with his life. He documented his travels to the wild for 13 years before a bear killed him and his girlfriend.
What Tredwell did is apparently not an isolated incident. This running off into the wild, escaping from society and modern life and disappearing into the wilderness is apparently a phenomenon that has occurred quite a few times. Often times, this decision to live in the wilderness ends with death. The movie Into the Wild (2007) directed by Sean Penn and starring Emil Hersh was based on a similar story of a young man called Christopher McCandless. He also chose to escape society to go and live in the wild. And he also ended up dying because of this decision; he ate poisonous weeds that ended up killing him. Lesson learned? If we are not careful, nature can bite us in the ass. We should never underestimate it, which in my opinion is what happened to Timothy Tredwell and the bears. In a way it feels like modern living has castrated us, detached us from nature so much that we can no longer just live amongst it. Nature is wild and fierce and it has no remorse, no compassion, and as we can see in both of these films, nature can be deadly.
But I get what Tredwell was doing. I get what McCandless did as well. These are just humans who want to disconnect entirely from society. They want to turn their backs on everything that is established because they are simply not happy with the way things are. Their solution is to simply turn their backs on everything and literally run to the hills. The problem is that you cannot just survive in the wild without making some preparations. And you cannot underestimate the hunger of a wild beast! I think the problem Timothy Tredwell had was that he thought he could make a connection with a killer animal, a meat eater; an animal who has no problems whatsoever with ripping your head off. If you ask me, Tredwell might as well have been trying to make friends with a wild lion or a shark. He had this idealistic mentality towards bears. He thought that simply by talking nicely to them, that he would connect with them. He knew he was close to death, he knew these animals were dangerous, but he decided to ignore this anyway.
They address this issue in the documentary as well, but I do agree he was having a religious experience with the bears. He saw them as his gods, his saviors. Tredwell was a drug addict who escaped his addiction by replacing it with his contact with nature. The bears were Tredwell’s own personal Jesus Christ. Only, he could actually see and touch his gods! This idealization of the beasts is what brought him to his death, he forgot these animals have a killer instinct within them. They are predators, and we humans, are the prey. No matter how nicely you talk to them when hunger strikes, your going to start looking mighty juicy to those bears. There is a scene that Tredwell caught on tape where two bears are beating the crap out of each other and it was at that moment that I said, this guy is crazy! I would never be there! So close! I mean, these two bears where ripping themselves apart! You can see in that footage how powerful these creatures truly are, and if they can do that to themselves, well, it kind of makes you wonder what they could do to you if they got hungry enough.
When ever anyone mentioned this documentary to me, I thought it would just be about a guy living amongst bears and his obsession with them. But its so much more then that. Through the more then 90 hours he shot of himself with the animals, we get to know who he was and what a sad, lonely and fractured soul he was. He was a very sensitive person, more then most people dare to show and he had no problems in expressing his emotions on his videos. Since he was so alone most of the time, his footage turned into confessional. He would talk to himself while looking at the camera and analyze his life. There are some truly touching and extremely truthful moments on this film. Tredwell’s footage is like life, a little crazy, a little tragic, and sometimes incredibly beautiful. It this documentary achieves one thing, its that. It lets us understand that life is made up of the ugly, the beautiful, the horrifying and the mystical all wrapped up in one.
There’s a moment, where Tredwell befriends a group of foxes that’s so touching, so magical. You see Tredwell running with these incredibly beautiful foxes through the grass, and the mountains in the background and the beautiful day, and for a moment I got Tredwell. I understood why he did what he did. He must have felt completely free in that wilderness, completely cut off from cars, and traffic jams, wars, toxic waste, famine, poverty, racism, classism, abusive governments, garbage, consumerism, commercials…and all those things that can sometimes make living in the mist of our society a little difficult. Tredwell was a humanist, looking for freedom and peace in this world. Can’t say I blame him for that. Its just that, had it been me, I would have been just a little more respectful of nature that’s all.
Still, it’s amazing how he caught everything on tape. And it’s a very sincere and truthful documentary. You kind of get the feeling sometimes that Tredwell wasn’t really grasping the reality of his situation. It feels like he had some fantasy idea of what a bear really is, and didn’t really grasp how deadly nature can be. You get the feeling that the guy had some sort of death wish. He was depressed, and loneliness was getting to him. In one of his confessional moments, he asks himself why girls didn’t stay too long with him. Was it because he was too sentimental and that this turned girls off? Why couldn’t they accept him for who he was? He even questions the existence of god in some scenes! There are some powerful moments on this documentary, highly recommended to anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Rating: 5 out of 5