The visionary German director Werner Herzog is cinema's magus of madness, obsessed with isolating obsession and off-kilter outsiders. His two best-known films (Aguirre, Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo) unleashed Klaus Kinski in the wild, while the lesser-known but brilliant Stroszek and The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser starred the incomparable Bruno S as men out of time and place. Herzog's new film picks up that thread via Timothy Treadwell: a man who, mixing Kinski's mania with Bruno's naïveté, thinks he can bond with grizzly bears. Amazingly, he became a minor celebrity by managing it for 12 summers - until things got horribly hairy in 2003.
It's an incredible story which, documented by Treadwell and later by his girlfriend on home video, provides miraculous material. Treadwell emerges as an extravagant, childlike eccentric, albeit possibly one on the brink of a breakdown, as he coos over foxes, eulogises bear "poop" and harangues God to make it rain (and lo, it rains.) As a study of man alone in nature, Treadwell's footage would be compelling even without its terrible twist.
In Herzog's hands, though, Treadwell's 100 hours of film, found after Timmy and his girlfriend were taken apart by a bear, becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Initially, Herzog gives his subject as much rope as he gave Kinski, watching him rant and rave. He clearly sees something of Kinski in Treadwell, too, noting with dry wisdom: "I have seen this madness before on a film set."
But rather than just observing Treadwell, or pathologising him, or turning him into a holy fool, Herzog fleshes the man out. Through interviews with family and friends, we learn about Treadwell's loneliness, drug abuse, failed acting career and free-wheeling take on the truths of his origins, all of it adding up to a rich psychological profile of a man in conflict with urban life.
Going further, Herzog actively engages with Treadwell, tackling the floppy-haired man-child over nature's nature. Where Treadwell sentimentalises nature as something that needs protecting (while not doing much of that), Herzog argues that we disrespect the chaos of the natural world at grave risk to ourselves. It ain't Disney out there, after all.
And there's more. Like documentaries such as Tarnation and Capturing The Friedmans, Grizzly Man hones in on the urge to document, on what happens when someone puts themselves before a camera. Like DiG! and Overnight, it exposes and explores the narcissism of an isolating obsession. And like Blair Witch played for scary, hairy real, it uses found footage to grimly gripping ends, while showing enough sensitivity to keep the recording of Treadwell's demise off-screen.
We've seen many great documentaries recently, but Herzog again proves himself a potent force in the desert of the real.