Timothy Treadwell has spent the last 13 summers living among grizzly bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Reserve. For the last 5 years he has filmed 90 hours of the wilderness, the bears and himself. In one of his last recorded statements he seemed confident that he had found a way to live among them.
It’s understandable the appeal that this story had for Werner Herzog. He has no interest in ordinary lives, at least as a subject. His work dwells on the verge of death, where life finds its deeper expressions. He filmed humans in the South Pole, indigenous people living in the heart of the Siberian Taiga, death row inmates with weeks to live, a visionary air traveller the sole survivor of a plane crash, etc. He says: “If I had a chance to venture out with a camera to a planet in our solar system, I would go, even if it were a one-way ticket only.”
Treadwell does what no man before him had done, he proclaims and there’s truth to that. He lives in constant danger and if he didn’t love the smell of death in the morning he certainly grew accustomed to it. He has a pet fox, to the extent that foxes can be pets. In his footage he is often a few feet away from bears. Sometimes close enough to touch their muzzles, which he tentatively does, at least once, on camera. This calmness before imminent death resembles heroism, but I’m inclined to think it was madness.
This movie could easily be an exaltation of a great man who saw beauty in nature and gave his life to preserve it, but Herzog opposing views didn’t allow that. Timothy thought he was protecting the bears and that the bears needed him. Herzog interviewed people whose job was just that and they believed his actions were doing more to endanger the bears than otherwise. Except from his family and friends, discovering sadness in their faces would be over reading. Most were discontent with his actions. These mixed feelings are understandable.
Herzog gives us an ample portrayal of the man. He looks like a city-boy look, with perfect hair and constantly aware and careful of his looks. He’s egomaniacal at times and paranoid at others, seeing enemies everywhere. But he’s also brave and his passion for what he does is unmistakable. His boyish wonder made me smile at times. Seeing him touch bear poop was one of the most heart-warming passages of the movie. He saw beauty in the animal world, beauty discovered after a life of drinking destroyed his wonderment in man’s world. This abyss was growing, and almost literally led to his death. An episode with an overweight flight attendant made him want to return to the bear maze, where he felt more comfortable. He was there long after he should have been, and was killed along with his companion by an unfamiliar bear.
There was an audio recording of the killing, but we never hear it. We watch Herzog listening to it from behind and in front of him is Jewel Palovak, former girlfriend and long-time friend of Timothy. She has never heard the tape. We watch them both and the emphasis is on her expression. She’s making sense of the face of the person who is listening to the terror. Their brief union is beyond rationalization. It is the most beautiful moment in the film.
This magic Timothy did not understand. He was methodical in his filmmaking, repeating takes 15 times. But the most beautiful shots were unplanned. Herzog used much of the footage that would certainly be edited out by most filmmakers. In his interviews he overstays the shots beyond there’s any rational reason to keep them. He finds beauty in the uncontrollable, the unplanned. Timothy constructs this beauty to suit his beliefs. He tries to make sense of nature and bears, where none can be made. Herzog can only see the “overwhelming indifference in nature”. And it’s with Timothy’s idealist views in the background that Herzog pragmatism makes all the more sense.
I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” And over footage of one of Treadwell’s beloved bears: “This blank stare” shows not the wisdom Treadwell read into it, but “only the half-bored interest in food.
I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me: