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Grizzly Man DVD Review - -
Grizzl Man DVD
Reviewed by
Simon Black
Grizzly Man DVD Review Grizzly Man combines elements of both control and unpredictability, particularly in Treadwell’s mock-vérité wildlife segments; designed to look impromptu they were in fact painstakingly rehearsed and reshot up to several dozen times apiece. 

Feature 10
Video 8.0
Audio 9.0
Special Features 7.0
Total 9.0
Distributor: Madman
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Reviewer: Simon Black
: MA15+


Grizzly Man (2005) 

Tireless German auteur Werner Herzog has to date produced a multitude of documentary shorts and no less than 10 full-length documentary films, including My Best Fiend (1999), an account of his tumultuous working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, and his most recent film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a study of Neanderthal cave paintings in southern France.  By far his most well-known documentary work, however, is Grizzly Man, which focuses on the last of controversial wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell’s thirteen summers spent living amongst the grizzly bear population of Katmai National Park in Alaska.  Treadwell’s passion for these creatures would eventually led to his demise - he and his girlfriend Amie Hugeunard were killed and eaten by a bear while camping in Katmui in 2003, and it is the viewer’s knowledge of this fact, presented in the film’s opening sequence, that gives the work much of its dramatic impetus.

Herzog seems to prefer not to imbue his documentaries with an ideology as such.  His main focus is rather more often a singular, dominant or chronically unstable personality which he proceeds to deconstruct subtlely and meticulously.  This is certainly the case with Grizzly Man, one of the more striking features of which is its ability to arouse, like the inimitable Treadwell himself, myriad reactions and a multitude of different questions in the mind of the viewer.  Was Treadwell an irresponsible nuisance or, as he put it, a ‘kind warrior’ fighting for his beloved grizzlies in the face of a callous and uncaring world?  Did he, as Herzog speculates, have an unspoken death wish?  Would his hours of footage have ever come to light had he not been killed?  And why did he feel so much more at home living amongst animals such as foxes and bears than with his own kind?

One of the most noteworthy things about Grizzly Man is the manner in which its director incorporates various documentary techniques in order to masterfully manipulate his viewer’s impression of the film’s central character.  By introducing carefully sequenced biographical data, interviews with friends and acquaintances, still photographs and Treadwell’s own monologues, Herzog gradually builds up a multifaceted and extremely complex whole.  Treadwell the eccentric conservationist quickly becomes Treadwell the careless ontological tourist, a disenfranchised, failed actor rejected by his own kind, a recovering alcoholic searching desperately for his life’s purpose, an unstable and highly marginalised individual hiding from his not inconsiderable demons in the wilds of Alaska.   

Finally, upon the time film’s terrible conclusion we are left with an impression of Treadwell as little more than a delusional, if impassioned, adrenaline junkie, whose perpetual and largely unjustified risk-taking resulted in the loss of not only his own life but that of his partner.  This end cannot come have wholly as a surprise to Treadwell, who seemed to all but invite his own demise by camping so late in the season amid an unfamiliar bear population.  ‘Give it to me, baby’ he goads one grizzly midway through the film, and during the opening scene gleefully exclaims ‘I can smell death all over my fingers.’  Herzog’s artistry lies in his extreme sensitivity to the different Treadwell’s inhabiting the footage, and the manner in which he gradually reveals these to his audience.  Then again, he was well qualified: ‘I have seen this madness before’ Herzog confides during one late scene in which Treadwell’s sanity seems to dissipate entirely. With Treadwell, as with Kinski, there is a pathological lack of self-control and a fascination with extremes that likewise seems to have enraptured Herzog, though his preferred vantage point is behind the all-seeing eye of the camera as opposed to in front of it.

Artistry aside, however, one is left with a sense of futility upon the film’s conclusion, not only for the loss of two lives but for the nature of Treadwell’s work itself.  The bears in question are, after all, living amid the haven of a National Park, and in no real need of a protection this self-styled environmental ‘samurai’ was neither qualified nor even able to provide.  In one sequence he ‘confronts’ a group of duck hunters by hiding in the bushes muttering until they pelt him with rocks, in another he interprets seemingly innocuous graffiti as a veiled threat on his life.  Midway through the film it becomes apparent that the grizzlies don’t actually need Treadwell at all, but the increasingly desperate Treadwell certainly needs the bears, his passion for whom he credits with both giving his life a meaning and curing him of the spectre of addiction.

For the most part Herzog abstains from infusing his voiceovers with his personal judgement and opinions, leaving his viewers free to draw their own conclusions.  Like nature, which he sees as wholly Darwinian and indifferent, his omnipotent narration is dispassionate though not unkind.  More often than not he prefers to let Treadwell address the audience directly, though Herzog does criticise Treadwell’s sentimentalised conception of nature and steps in front of the camera on several pivotal occasions, as when he listens to an audio recording of the conservationist’s final moments in the presence of Treadwell’s tearful ex-girlfriend.  The sense of pathos engendered is unforgettable, and once more Herzog takes full advantage of the versatility of the documentary form, simultaneously depicting himself not only as narrator and director, but as a central character within the structure of the film itself.  It’s a powerful moment in a moving and unforgettable work, and one of many thought-provoking images contained therein that continues to resonate long after the film’s conclusion.


Treadwell’s amateur footage holds up extremely well.  It’s occasionally a little soft, the odd ant crawls across the lens, but mostly he shows a rare eye for shot composition and his filmic abilities are even complimented by Herzog at one point.  Treadwell’s shots are superbly augmented by Herzog’s own lush cinematography, with the director’s usual obsessive emphasis on landscape finding its culmination in some beautiful sequences of the untamed Alaskan wilderness.  The 16:9 anamorphic widescreen presentation is for the most part pristine, especially considering the often unorthodox nature of the source material – Madman don’t fuck about with the picture quality on their Director’s Suite releases, and they weren’t about to start here.


The two-channel audio is strong, the extensive interviews always perfectly audible and Herzog’s own heavily-accented ‘meta-narration’ likewise nice and clear. 


Grizzly Man combines elements of both control and unpredictability, particularly in Treadwell’s mock-vérité wildlife segments; designed to look impromptu they were in fact painstakingly rehearsed and reshot up to several dozen times apiece.  Herzog both tempered this emphasis on repetition and mirrored the unpredictability of his subject’s personality by insisting on an entirely improvised score, another oddity for the documentary genre.  By discarding the usual documentary practise of incidental ‘wall to wall’ music in favour of a deeply emotive score which emphasises mood, action and dialogue, Herzog incorporated a traditional narrative film technique into the documentary form, finding yet another way to subvert and extend the boundaries of the medium. 

Herzog’s painstaking and novel approach to the music within the film is documented in the disc’s principal bonus feature, a 54-minute featurette on the scoring of the soundtrack which contains lengthy interviews with Herzog and his musicians, footage of the recording sessions and extensive insights into the creative process itself.  Herzog controls every aspect of the recordings (at one point he good naturedly informs a guitarist that ‘if you go too wild I’ll trample on your foot’), but he wrings some beautiful performances from his musicians and it’s a pleasure to watch him work at actualising the perfect musical accompaniment he so clearly visualises.  Also included are a theatrical trailer and several Director’s Suite trailers.


Grizzly Man is such a deeply impressive, multifaceted and fully-realised work that words can’t really do it justice.  In addition to being one of the high-water marks of Herzog’s entire canon it’s one of the most sublime examples of the documentary genre ever to grace the screen, and a work that simultaneously challenges, edifies and entertains in equal measure.  It’s a film of rare power and remains, along with 1979s Nosferatu, the most potent encapsulation of Herzog’s oft-avowed directorial goal of the search for ‘aesthetic ecstasy and truth.’


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