Werner Herzog & The Human Abyss

“It was like looking into an abyss,” said Werner Herzog of the footage left behind by Timothy Treadwell. “Human beings are always like an abyss.”

“But,” Mr. Herzog told The Transom, “that is how I knew it was potent material. Both the editor and I had given up smoking, but it was so astounding that we had to stop immediately and rush to buy a packet of cigarettes.”

Mr. Herzog—the legendary German director who ate his shoe on camera, walked to Paris from Munich for a dying friend, and never formally studied film—churns out documentaries the way film critics churn out bad reviews. Recently—amid the wildlife tableaus of the Natural History museum—Grizzly Man, his second of three docs to be released this year, was trotted out for a few hundred lucky guests. At least as many were left stranded outside, while those indoors hovered over sweaty cheese platters with Kurt Andersen.

Grizzly Man, which was co-produced by Lion’s Gate and the Discovery Channel, tells the story of self-proclaimed eco-warrior Timothy Treadwell and his time among the grizzly bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska. Mr. Treadwell, a flaxen haired failed actor and erstwhile alcohol consumer, traveled to Katmai for the first time in 1990 and spent the following 13 summer immersing himself in the grizzly world.

His grizzly games began as therapy but developed into a full scale profession, complete with appearances on David Letterman and book deals. Each summer he allowed himself to venture further into their sanctuaries. He named his bear friends, adopted a family of mangy foxes, and spent most of his time recording unnervingly emotive segments on his camera.

Having survived thirteen summers among the carnivores, he and his girlfriend were ravaged by a bear moments before they were to be transported back to the mainland. The 100 hours of footage left behind eventually found its way into Mr. Herzog’s hands.

When the Transom asked whether it should address Herr Herzog in German, he declined. His English, though heavily accented, is pristine. “I had not seen any of Treadwell’s footage when I started to shoot my half of the film…” he purred. “I did not want to.”

The whole process, including travel to Florida, Alaska, and Long Island, was done incredibly quickly, in less than a month. But Mr. Treadwell is now, for Mr. Herzog, like an old friend. “He is part of the family, no doubt. If he showed up at the dinner table for Thanksgiving, everyone would recognize him.”

According to sources close to the studio, there is footage of Mr Treadwell’s death, which was so gruesome that Mr. Treadwell’s family would not allow it to be seen. Instead Mr. Herzog makes do with just the audio. He vows that visual footage does not exist. “He should be granted some privacy and dignity in his death. We are not going to do a snuff movie,” Mr. Herzog sniffed.

At the end of the day, there is something just a bit off about Mr. Treadwell and his fellow bear enthusiasts. Mr. Treadwell’s good friend and sometime co-author, Jewel Palovak, who is also a producer of the film, comes across as remarkably unstricken and even callow in the documentary. She also addressed the crowd at the screening in a most bizarre way. “I mean here I am, living the life Timothy always wanted to lead, addressing hundreds of people. I’ve got all that now.”
—Jessica Joffe