(Um, when I say "clear-sighted", what I mean is Herzog goes hell for leather getting to the emotional and aesthetic truth of his subject - and if that means staging a few scenes, then fuck it, that's exactly what Herr Herzog will do. We'll return to this subject when ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’ crops up on the personal faves list.)
In ‘Grizzly Man’, Herzog finds a real-life subject the equal of any of his fictive protagonists. Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen summers in the "grizzly maze" of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, often directly contravening the regulations on camping and non-interaction with the wildlife. He shot over 100 hours of video footage, focusing as much on himself as on the bears.
Reviews of the film trot out the same descriptions of Treadwell: "environmentalist", "troubled loner". Herzog’s documentary also shows him as a lachrymose sentimentalist ("I love you," he croons to the bears, whom he gives babyish names like ‘Mr Chocolate’); a paranoid fantasist (encountering a team of photographers on a wildlife shoot, he immediately decries them as poachers; a smiley face graffiti'd on a rock engenders a flight of paranoia that would be funny if ‘Grizzly Man’ were a work of fiction) and a rampant egomaniac (he deems the Katmai National Park "my land" and declares himself "a kind warrior").
Herzog never entirely calls it either way, though. True, he accuses of Treadwell of "crossing the line" during an expletive-ridden rant about the Katmai National Park authorities; but he also delights in the (almost accidental) visual poetry of some of Treadwell's footage. Herzog is too much of a film-maker, too much of a crazed adventurer himself, not to appreciate Treadwell's commitment. He's also too intelligent, too much of a realist, not to recognise Treadwell's naivety.
That Treadwell was killed by a bear is not so much irony as inevitability. A native Alaskan, interviewed by Herzog, advocates "Our people have lived with the bears for 700 years - they stay away from us, we stay away from them." A jolting cut from Treadwell’s childish musings to footage of two grizzlies locked in combat reinforces the point: these are huge, powerful animals that kill for food. Respect them, yes, but don’t try to play with them.
When another interviewee assets that Treadwell got the death "he deserved", it sounds harsh. By the end of the documentary, you realise it’s simply a statement of fact. "This is not a nature film," Herzog says at the outset. Very true. ‘Grizzly Man’ is a study in madness and just as compelling as if Kinski were in the lead role.