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Traveling in Dark Places
Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man

Herzog’s curiosity about the borderlines that define the edges of human experience drives his best work, including his most recent documentaries.

We are in the midst of a Werner Herzog renaissance. It’s not sweeping the obligatory blockbusters from the neighborhood cineplex, of course, but we’re talking Herzog here: the brooding, eternally curious auteur who got attention in the 1970s and early 1980s with films like Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo and who has more recently shifted his attention to smaller documentary projects, seemingly for budgetary reasons. After all, it’s a lot cheaper to shoot a documentary than it is to make a feature film, with all its sets and costumes to be made and its large cast and crew to be paid.

Ironically, it’s a small-budget documentary that jump-started the present Herzog renaissance. Grizzly Man, which examines activist Timothy Treadwell’s life and eventual death living among grizzly bears in Alaska, grabbed attention when it appeared in 2005, largely because its implied violence is so extreme. The opening speech, delivered by Treadwell on video footage he shot himself (the film is compiled largely from the video Treadwell took in the last three years of his life), promises grim mayhem:


If I show weakness, if I retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed. I must hold my own if I’m gonna stay within this land. For once there is weakness, they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces. I’m dead.


As he steps out of the frame, leaving two grizzlies alone in the shot, he closes his speech in voiceover: “I can smell death all over my fingers.”

And like a good slasher flick, Grizzly Man follows through on its promise to kill both Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. (Treadwell got it exactly right: at the end of his thirteenth year in the Alaskan wilderness, he was indeed decapitated and chopped into bits and pieces, many of which were recovered from the attacking bear’s stomach after it was shot to death.) But we don’t actually see the attack, nor do we hear it, although Treadwell managed to capture the audio with a video camera whose lens was covered.

“Jewel, you must never listen to this,” Herzog advises Jewel Palovak, Treadwell’s former girlfriend, after he listens to the tape through headphones. “I think you should not keep it. You should destroy it…Because it will be the white elephant in your room all your life.”

He’s right about the tape: it is the film’s elephant as well, and what it holds lies at the heart of Grizzly Man’s popular success, I suspect. After all, if the public were simply yearning to see a good Herzog documentary, why didn’t it demand that Herzog’s previous project, The White Diamond, get a wider showing? (A typical Herzog film, it documented a British scientist’s obsessive attempt to design a small air ship that could gently float above the Amazonian rain forest.)

Whatever drove audiences to see Grizzly Man, though, the fact that we know before the film starts that Treadwell was killed by a grizzly makes the film electric: his opening monologue becomes Shakespearean in its tragic, unwitting heft and foreshadowing.

In many ways, Treadwell is a perfect Herzog subject. Throughout his career, Herzog has been attracted to fringe figures who obsessively entertain strange, often quixotic ideas that strain against the limits posed by their humanity. “Having myself filmed in the wilderness of jungles,” Herzog says in Grizzly Man,


I found that beyond [Treadwell’s] wildlife film, in his material lay dormant a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil. As if there was a desire in him to leave the confinements of his humanness and bond with the bears, Treadwell reached out, seeking a primordial encounter. But in doing so, he crossed an invisible borderline.


Trying to cross those borderlines (by floating over the jungle, for instance, or – going the other way – trying to assimilate back into a foreign culture like the alienated title character in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) is the preoccupying obsession that drives many of Herzog’s most interesting characters.

But in at least a narrow way, Treadwell reminds us of a particular eccentric linked to Herzog: Klaus Kinski, the volatile, self-proclaimed nature lover and star of five Herzog features (as well as the subject of My Best Fiend, the documentary Herzog made about Kinski after his death). Like Treadwell, Kinski “badly wanted to expose himself to wild nature,” as Herzog tells us in My Best Fiend. And his argument against Treadwell’s “sentimentalized view that everything out there was good, and the universe in balance and in harmony” is in many ways a continuation of the one he posed explicitly in My Best Fiend:


Kinski always says [nature is] full of erotic elements. I don’t see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical [sic] here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there is a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing; I think they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.


Likewise, near the end of Grizzly Man as footage of the bear that may have killed Treadwell and his girlfriend plays on the screen, Herzog tells us, “To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.”

The parallels between Kinski and Treadwell become even clearer, at times. When Treadwell turns vociferously against the National Park Service, for example, his profanity-strewn tirade reminds us explicitly of Kinski’s tantrums that Herzog shows his audience in My Best Fiend. And Herzog even tells us, in Grizzly Man’s voiceover, that “I have seen this madness before on a film set. But Treadwell is not an actor in opposition to a director or a producer. He’s fighting civilization itself.”

Moving toward the edge – of civilization, of sanity, of simple bodily safety – is something that Herzog himself does, along with his films’ subjects, again and again. In Fitzcarraldo, he took a large steamboat through Amazonian rapids and nearly capsized it. In La Soufriere, he visited a volcano on the verge of eruption. In The White Diamond, he insists that he personally operate the camera in the air ship’s maiden voyage, although a flight with an earlier model had resulted in the pilot’s death. One feels, ultimately, that Herzog is not merely undertaking a debate with his subjects but actively pursuing his own exorcism with them, at times.

In a real sense, Herzog has become the star of his documentaries: we see him on camera, we listen to his soft, melancholy voice narrate and explain the images that flicker on the screen. He’s not an actor, but more of an insightful host willing to read his subject closely and deconstruct its hidden meanings for his audience.

He has recently performed as an actor, though, in one of the oddest forms he has taken yet, appearing as himself in the 2005 pseudo-documentary, Incident at Loch Ness. In the Grizzly Man DVD’s short documentary about its soundtrack, Herzog tells a musician that all his films have been “after a deeper truth, an ecstatic truth.” Incident at Loch Ness, directed by Zack Penn, is about a decidedly different kind of truth. It’s a lightweight, tongue-in-cheek film, but Herzog seems to have fun playing with the questionable nature of cinematic fact and truth.

Herzog enthusiasts should rejoice in the director’s unexpected renaissance. With the recent releases of Grizzly Man and The White Diamond, the bulk of his major work is now available on DVD, including two superb box sets of his earlier films. (One focuses on his films with Kinski, and it’s indispensable.) Along with the Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of The Burden of Dreams, Les Banks’ fascinating documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, it’s an impressive library, and it certainly rivals and even surpasses the collections available for such significant directors as Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted January 1, 2006





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