Last Wednesday, Werner Herzog told a packed campus audience that one of the most talented filmmakers he knew of was viciously killed before the footage he captured was refined into a feature documentary.
“We are speaking about a wonderful movie, great poetry of footage, and phenomenal achievements in filmmaking … which [are] unique in film history,” the legendary German filmmaker said to a crowd of Princeton community members at the James M. Stewart ’32 theater on April 6. “It will never happen again.”
The filmmaker whom Herzog waxed poetic about that night was Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 consecutive summers living with grizzly bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park until he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were mauled and partially consumed by one of the bears in October 2003. During his time in Alaska, Treadwell recorded over 100 hours of footage of himself and the bears — Herzog describes Treadwell’s camera as “his omnipresent companion.” Herzog used some of this footage to create his 2005 film “Grizzly Man,” in addition to interviews with those close to Treadwell and familiar with the pair’s death.
After surprising the audience with a clip from his upcoming film “Theatre of Thought” that featured an interview with University neurologist Uri Hasson, Herzog showed “Grizzly Man” for the lucky few members of the Princeton community who were able to secure tickets to the screening.
“I haven’t seen the film in a long time, and I must say I’m very fond of what [I just saw],” Herzog said after the credits rolled.
The German director also spoke of how he came to make the documentary. When meeting with producer and frequent collaborator Erik Nelson in 2004, a magazine article about Treadwell and Huguenard’s death caught his eye, at which point Nelson revealed that he was planning to make a film on the tragedy.
“I asked [Nelson] point blank who is directing the film, and he said ‘I’m kind of directing it,’” Herzog recalled. “I said no, I will direct this film … and within 10 days, I was shooting in Alaska.”
“I had a contract,” Herzog added, “the worst contract you can imagine … not even a freshman in film school would get such a lousy contract.”
The contract didn’t seem to matter to Herzog, though. What was important to him was to tell Treadwell’s story in the right way.
“Of course, I could not easily make a film about somebody whom I did not at least deeply respect,” he said.
Through interviews with loved ones, footage of Treadwell’s interactions with animals, and emotional video diary entries plucked from Treadwell’s camera, there is no doubt Treadwell’s portrait is drawn delicately and humanely throughout the film. At the center of the story, Herzog reveals a man who, despite his playful antics and typically cheerful on-camera personality, was overwhelmed by his solitude and struggled to relate to his own species, instead (perhaps naïvely) seeking friendship with wild animals.
“I think perhaps [Timothy] wanted to mutate into a wild animal,” said ecologist and close friend Marnie Gaede in the film.
Treadwell had a fanciful view of his ursine cohabitants, giving them cartoonish names like “Mr. Chocolate” and even sleeping with a stuffed teddy bear in his tent. While Herzog does treat the subject of Treadwell’s psyche with tenderness and care throughout the film, he pointed out that this naïveté with respect to the “overwhelming indifference of nature” is what got him killed.
“What is going on in our civilization is what I call the ‘Disney-fication’ of wild nature,” Herzog said. “Bears are fluffy, and you have to hug them and dance with them and sing a song to them.”
“This tragic misunderstanding, a philosophical misunderstanding, as if everything in nature was ‘vanilla ice cream happiness’ and a song to the bears cost him and Amie Huguenard [their lives], and cost two bears their lives that had to be shot by [park] rangers,” he added.
Herzog is no stranger to wild nature himself, having grown up in an area of Germany so remote he did not make his first phone call until the age of 17. He has traveled to places as inhospitable as Antarctica and the Amazon rainforest for his films, and even spent two consecutive summers with his son, who was in his early teens at the time, in the wilderness of Alaska, just like Treadwell. Although his harshly realist view of nature was well-formed by the time he made “Grizzly Man,” Herzog remarked that the filmmaking process “shaped” into “clear contours” his philosophy that “the common denominator of the universe is chaos.”
“I kept thinking, in what kind of universe do we live,” he said. “Just by stepping outside … you know, this is very, very, very hostile, very unfriendly. It is murderous. It's something that is chaotic.”
Even with his criticisms of Treadwell, though, it’s evident that Herzog’s time with Treadwell’s footage and loved ones left a mark on him emotionally. In Herzog’s lone on-camera appearance in the film, during which he listens to the nightmarish audio recording captured by Treadwell and Huguenard during their final moments through headphones at the house of Treadwell’s heir, Jewel Palovak, the psychological impact of the project is clear.
“When [I was] listening to the tape with Jewel Palovak, I didn’t want to be filmed,” he said. “We filmed me mainly from behind, and we watched her face trying to read from my face, and it's one moment that still makes me ache when I think about it.”
In the scene, Herzog went on to insist that Palovak destroy the tape and never listen to it, the horror clear in his voice and body language. Palovak has since placed the tape in a bank vault, and has kept the wealth of video recordings that Treadwell made over the years.
With this massive quantity of footage, one has to wonder if the film would have ever been made had Treadwell lived.
“My opinion is, we shouldn’t speculate,” Herzog said. “We should enjoy the film as it is. It’s a collaboration without knowing each other.”
Indeed, Treadwell had done much of the heavy lifting in the collaboration by the time Herzog came across the footage in 2004, although Herzog did miraculously edit the entire film in just 10 days in September of that year in order to meet the deadline for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Despite the astonishing craft and efficiency showcased by Herzog during the production of the documentary, though, he insists that Treadwell remains the true visionary.
“He captured such glorious improvised moments,” Herzog narrates in the film, “the likes of which the studio directors, with their union crews, can never dream of.”
Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers football, basketball, and breaking news. He is also a senior writer for the Podcast section. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @wilson_conn.