Favorite Films: Grizzly Man (2005)

Timothy Treadwell in Alaska’s Katmai National Park

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.

Grizzly Bear

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.\


The Wizard, the Beast, and the Beauty

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about one of the strangest actor/director partnerships in the history of the cinema. There have been many famous ones, such as Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, and Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher; but the strangest of all was between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.

I say “strangest” because Kinski was that most unusual combination: A brilliant actor and a raving maniac. According to his friend and mentor Werner Herzog, Kinski was a complete egomaniac. When he felt that attention was being diverted away from him, Kinski went off the rails. He would start screaming with his eyes at the maximum bug-eyed setting, with his face at times two inches away from whomever he was directing his rant, During the filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982), the chief of the Amazonian Indians in the cast asked Herzog’s permission to kill him. This story is recounted in Herzog’s book about the making of the film, The Conquest of the Useless.

And yet, there have been few actors quite as outstanding and natural as Kinski. He knew how to make an impression onscreen. At times he could be loving and tender, as he was with Claudia Cardinale in Fitzcarraldo and Eva Mattes in Woyzeck (1979).At worst, he was a disruptive force that could destroy a film production and leave it a gutted ruin.

Why, considering this reputation, did Herzog decided to make five films with Kinski? These films were Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972); Nosferatu the Vampire (1979); Woyzeck (1979); Fitzcarraldo (1982); and Cobra Verde (1987). Three or four of these would be considered in any list of Herzog’s best films—and Kinski’s, as well!

After Kinski died of a heart attack in 1991, Herzog directed a documentary about his contentious, and yet rewarding relationship, with the actor which he called My Best Fiend (1999). To see an excerpt from this documentary, click here.

Klaus Kinski’s Daughter, Nastassja Kinski

Klaus Kinski’s Daughter, Nastassja Kinski

And now we come to the strangest part of the story. The bug-eyed demon, Klaus Kinski, was the father of one of the most beautiful actresses who ever lived, Nastassja Kinski. The daughter did not have an easy relationship with her father:

“He was no father. 99 percent of the time I was terrified of him. He was so unpredictable that the family lived in constant terror.” When asked what she would say to him now, if she had the chance, she replied: “I would do anything to put him behind bars for life. I am glad he is no longer alive.”

She managed to escape being sexually abused by Kinski, but just barely.

I find it surpassingly odd that someone so out of it as Klaus Kinski could work successfully with a director like Herzog and give birth to a woman with such unearthly beauty as Nastassja.