Well known American film critic Roger Ebert calls him one of his personal heroes, and it’s not difficult to see why. Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who cannot be defined in a few words. He is a history in itself, and what a fascinating history. He has delved into every kind of cinema, and trumped it. Forget his masterpieces like ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ (1972) or ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (1982), recently, when 3D became a craze, he made his first 3D documentary, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ (2010), and showed the world how to exploit technology to create enchanting experiences.
He is one of the few directors alive or dead, who have so effortlessly travelled between narrative films and documentary. He made the wonderful documentary ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’ (1997) and ten years later converted into a feature film, ‘Rescue Dawn’ (2007).
Another interesting aspect of Herzog as a documentary filmmaker is that unlike a classic doc where the director does not involves himself with the subject, Herzog stands there in the middle of his subject matter and tells the story from his point of view, in his own voices, giving it a perspective in an open-hearted humane way. For example, watching ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ (2007) is not about knowing the current scenario in the north pole, but about seeing the place with open-eyed wonder.
Even by these standards, Grizzly Man (2005) is a rare achievement. Unlike most of his docs where he places his subjects within space and time, and observe them, and participates in the process, here, he talks about a dead man, and uses the stock footage filmed by the dead man himself, and tries to understand the subject from the distance. On paper, it sounds clinical, on screen it’s a heartbreaking tale of a man’s dangerous obsession of grizzly bear.
Wikipedia tells me: “Grizzly Man is a 2005 American documentary film by German director Werner Herzog. It chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. The film consists of Treadwell's own footage of his interactions with grizzly bears before he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a bear in 2003, and of interviews with people who knew or were involved with Treadwell. The footage he shot was later found, and the final film was co-produced by Discovery Docs, the Discovery Channel's theatrical documentary unit, and Lions Gate Entertainment. The film's soundtrack is by British singer songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson.” More here.
What Herzog basically does is to edit the videos he found, and tries of tell Treadwell’s story. For the audience, there are two distinct threads working here. One is Treadwell on the screen explaining his love for the bears with whom he has worked for 13 years. Treadwell cuts a very valiant figure in these videos, and his love for the bears is palpable. But, for the audience, the screen is filled with dramatic irony. We start looking at the film with the clear knowledge that Treadwell is dead. So, when he says it’s dangerous to live among these bears, it sounds prophetic.
And then, there’s Herzog’s voiceover in the background, in German-accented English, trying to make sense of Treadwell’s work, his obsession and understand the line between man and nature!
Haunting, aided greatly by Richard Thompson’s music and the great song ‘Coyotes’ by Don Edwards.
Writes Roger Ebert: The documentary is an uncommon meeting between Treadwell's loony idealism, and Herzog's bleak worldview. Treadwell's footage is sometimes miraculous, as when we see his close bond with a fox who has been like his pet dog for 10 years. Or when he grows angry with God because a drought has dried up the salmon run and his bears are starving. He demands that God make it rain and, what do you know, it does. More here.
Writes Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian: "It is poignant, it is beautiful, and it is absolutely hilarious. Herzog didn't even have much work to do, what's more, because Treadwell - gifted, untrained film-maker that he was - had done almost everything himself, leaving behind hundreds of hours of videotape that he had shot at extreme and indeed fatal risk to himself. They contain sublime, dramatic shots of the bears and footage of his own mad and posturing rants to camera, wearing combats and a bandana - part surfer-dude, part drama-queen. Poor Mr Treadwell. He loved those bears. And they loved him. Yum, yum!" More here.
More on Herzog here.