Homer wrote in The Iliad, "There can be no covenant between lions and men." In Grizzly Man, acclaimed German director Werner Herzog sifts through the videotaped remains of Timothy Treadwell and attempts to understand what drove him to make annual expeditions into Alaskan grizzly-bear territory. Treadwell would die on his 2003 expedition to the remote Katmai National Park and Reserve, where a grizzly tore him and his girlfriend to shreds and ate them.
Treadwell taped many hours of footage over 13 expeditions, and his uncensored diaries of life among the grizzlies and foxes are records of his borderline personality, egomania, and paranoid delusions. Treadwell rails—sometimes with frightening, inarticulate mania—against poachers, the government, and other perceived enemies. In the film's first scene, Treadwell speaks of "a kind warrior," a phrase that could equally describe Treadwell's self-image and his perception of the bears.
"They can kill, they can bite, they can decapitate," he says, but his warnings appear to have been a teasing part of Treadwell's showmanship and not a self-possessed awareness of danger. Though he dramatically describes and displays the bear's capacity for powerful violence, Treadwell's unbridled enthusiasm for bears was obviously sincere, if showy. We see him fondle grizzly poop for the camera, coo his love to the bears, and chant, "I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals."
But Treadwell's recklessness grew out of a deeply troubled background. He was a failed actor and a substance abuser with a criminal record, but he determined to reinvent himself by claiming to be Australian, cutting a deal with the Discovery Networks, taking spots on talk shows (we see him on Late Show with David Letterman), and living out his preference of bears to people.
Most of the film consists of found footage, and though it can become monotonous, it is more often mesmerizing. Herzog loads his film by giving Treadwell's death date (2003) in the opening frames, so tension pervades any scene with Treadwell among the bears. Herzog is also able to capitalize on Treadwell's natural high of self-styled adventure and images that Herzog couldn't get away with if they weren't true (like the flies that ominously swarm around Treadwell and his camera).
Herzog's own footage explores the quirky people in Treadwell's orbit, including an ex-girlfriend, the helicopter pilot who initiated rescue proceedings ("The only reason he lasted as long as he did is the bears probably thought there was something wrong with him, like he was mentally retarded or something....We hauled away four garbage bags of people out of that bear"), and a disingenuously sensitive coroner who gravitates to the limelight just as much as Treadwell did.
As for Herzog, he responds to Treadwell as a filmmaker, acknowledging his magical ability with the camera. More so, the existentially cynical Herzog wonders at his subject's polar philosophy of natural optimism. Herzog narrates that where Treadwell saw personality (which he fatally invested in the bears), "I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature....chaos, hostility, murder."
Though Herzog wrestles with themes of man's relationship to nature, Grizzly Man can't entirely avoid an air of prurient exploitation, which Herzog teases by showing himself listening on headphones to an audio recording of Treadwell's death. We're spared the sounds, but haunted by our own mental image, one more example of the individual's capacity to create his own reality.