When Animals Attack

Columbus Alive | August 25, 2005
You know the old car accident metaphor—the one about how something’s horrible, but also so fascinating that you just can’t look away? The same principle applies to Grizzly Man. But instead of chronicling something as pedestrian as a car accident, Werner Herzog’s documentary is about a grizzly bear eating two people alive.

The victims are Amie Huguenard and Timothy Treadwell; the former is almost a complete enigma, the latter is the tragic star of the film. A failed actor turned activist, Treadwell spent 13 summers living among grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilds in an attempt to study and protect them. He shot more than 100 hours of film, from which Herzog culls some of Grizzly Man’s best images.

We learn early on that a bear killed Treadwell while his camera was running. The lens cap was on at the time, but there’s audio of the attack (which is never played—the film’s not that sensationalistic). From there, Herzog reconstructs Treadwell’s life and death, giving a complex and fascinating portrait of a complex and fascinating man, who was either a lunatic losing his grip on reality or a noble soul whose romantic love of nature was simply purer than nature itself.

Treadwell can be an irritating screen presence, but there’s no questioning his guts—he stands up to the gigantic bears, frightening aggressive ones away with a stomp of his foot and a motherly scolding. The deadly force of these killing machines is best illustrated in a jaw-dropping six-minute battle between two males that Treadwell captured. When it’s over, the battleground is torn up as if two tanks had rolled over it.

Herzog serves as his own narrator, explaining that his deep respect for Treadwell comes from the activist’s skill as a filmmaker. Shortly after he notes one technique of Treadwell’s—leaving the camera on after a shot to allow for spontaneity—Herzog adopts it, fishing for human emotion in the same way Treadwell sought animal emotion.

Treadwell’s footage is what gives the documentary its power—there’s simply no beating the intimate scenes of wild bears he captured. Is it worth the cost of two human lives? Certainly not, but Treadwell seemed to believe it was worth losing his own.

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