Over the last thirty years, some of my favorite movies were directed by Werner Herzog. So when I screened his Grizzly Man for myself, I was not surprised to find that it was nothing short of amazing. Its subject, Timothy Treadwell as to grizzly bears what Aussie Steve Irwin was to crocodiles and other dangerous denizens of the wild. In the end, both men died because they were exposed to one too many dangers. In the case of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, they were eaten by a bear that Treadwell failed to charm.
There was always something strange about Treadwell with his Prince Valiant blonde mop. (He had failed to win the role of Woody Boyd in Cheers that was filled by Woody Harrelson.) He spent his summers in Alaska’s Katmai National Park trying to convince us that grizzlies were like warm and fuzzy Teddy Bears. He even camped with a favorite Teddy Bear, as well as a girlfriend.
After Treadwell and Huguenard’s death, German filmmaker Werner Herzog made Grizzly Man, but probably not as Treadwell would have liked. Much of the footage was actually from Treadwell himself, and showed him in his various moods—including defiance at the National Park Service. He did not like to be reminded by them that what he was doing was dangerous. Unlike Steve Irwin, he downplayed the dangers of closeness with the bears. What amazes me was not that he was eventually attacked and devoured by them than that he survived as long as he did.
In his and his girlfriend’s last few minutes on earth, Treadwell was actually filming. Because of the circumstances, he did not have a chance to remove the lens cap, so all he had was an audio track. In Grizzly Man, we see Herzog listening to this track in the presence of one of his associates, Jewel Palovak. Upon finishing, he hands the tape to Palovak and recommends that she destroy it. She did the next best thing: Instead of listening to it, she had it placed in a bank vault. Nobody wants to have his or her dreams turn into nightmares from listening to the death of someone they had loved.
Herzog believes that Treadwell was a disturbed individual with a death wish. Treadwell’s own footage, much of which appears in the Herzog film, bears this out. In fact, I was so disturbed that I had disturbing nightmares the night after I saw the film.\