Werner Herzog has always been fascinated by obsessive characters whose manias verge on the self-destructive, and he’s stumbled on a perfect subject to feed his interest in this remarkable film, more interpretive essay than straight documentary. It’s about Timothy Treadwell, a driven young man who, over the course of more than a decade, lived for a good part of each year in the Alaskan wilderness, where he communed with the grizzly bears and came to see himself as their brother and protector against the encroachments of so-called civilization. It hardly spoils things, since it’s revealed early in the film, to note that Treadwell died in 2003, mauled to death (along with his girlfriend) by one of his beloved animals–a typically Herzogian irony, though one presented here with grave poignance rather than any flippancy. It would have been easy, perhaps, to deride Treadwell as a deluded individual whose drive outstripped his sense, whose longing to do good blinded him to reality. But Herzog, though unafraid to offer his own judgments about such matters, always does so gently, and in dealing with those who knew and loved Treadwell he probes with great care, most notably in a late scene in which he listens to the audio tape that recorded the attack in which the man was killed and tells the woman who now possesses it to destroy it, lest it loom over the rest of her life like some awful, unmentioned horror. And the fact that he doesn’t play the tape for us seems less a tease than a sort of silent nod to the dignity of the deceased, however absurd his actions might seem.
What makes it possible for Herzog to investigate Treadwell so thoroughly is the fact that the fellow was as much a self-promoting showman as a committed activist, taking care to photograph himself delivering exuberant monologues during the dozen years he spent time in the wild with his grizzlies. Using those reams of footage as well as other clips (as from Treadwell’s occasional TV appearances) and interviews with the fellow’s friends and family (along with critics of his methods and even the pathologist who examined his remains), Herzog reveals his subject as a man who effectively remade himself–an alcoholic failed actor who adopted an Australian accent and the persona of a White Knight on a crusade to save the creatures that he anthropomorphized as noble beings not so different from himself (and whom, as more than one observer wryly remarks, he wanted to become one with). It’s a process, in effect, of self-mythologizing in which Treadwell indulged somewhat crazily, and you can almost feel Herzog’s amazed admiration at the attempt. (In one remarkable sequence, Treadwell curses a drought and in effect summons a rainstorm–which does in fact come, confirming his own confidence in himself as something more than merely mortal.) The point on which Herzog departs most completely from his subject, and the one he struggles to articulate and dramatize through this artful assemblage of data, is the nature, if you will, of nature itself. Treadwell, giddily passionate about the wild, considered nature as essentially benign and welcoming; but for Herzog the man’s fate confirms his own view of nature as something not only distinct from man but dangerous to him.
What makes “Grizzly Man” so remarkable is that in investigating Treadwell’s obsession Herzog demonstrates his own–a drive, hardly less powerful than his subject’s, to understand Treadwell from within just as Treadwell sought to effectively become one with the bears. (At one point the director suggests that the landscape he’s photographed can be taken as a “metaphor” for Treadwell’s soul.) It’s as revealing of the filmmaker as it is of its subject (which makes, for example, Herzog’s use of “deduct” for “deduce” in his own narration so endearing). And that’s probably a sign of some sort of crazy greatness, in this case cinematic as well as environmental. This is a film that’s at once beautiful, horrifying, tragic, uplifting, grimly humorous and unutterably sad, and it’s among Herzog’s very best.