Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog

The screen is black; all you can hear are the screams of two people coming from the speakers.  Your imagination runs wild as you hear two people fighting for their lives.  One yells to hit the ‘bear’. Suddenly you realize that this is the sound of two people encountering death from a grizzly.  The scene doesn’t just last a few seconds; instead, it lasts several minutes.  Its clear that the death was horrific, but then again, we see scenes like this all the time on the big screen.  After watching the action filled movie what are we left with?  These scenes never happened, but they could have.  In the movie “Grizzly man”, Werner Herzog made a film about the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, in which he had audio recordings that could hypothetically have been used in the film.  While it would seem like a filmmaker’s dream to have dramatic audio like this, he did not use it.  I would like to argue that Herzog intentionally kept these sequences out of the film, and in thus doing, made the incident and the film, more dramatic.

Television and the big screen have a tendency to show horrific events, whether true or not, on a regular basis.  Very few Hollywood movies can escape from showing people dying in dramatic ways.  It seems that our culture has become immune to these dramas that occur on the big screen. If Herzog allowed the audio of Timothy’s death to play in his film, would people have forgotten how terrible the episode was?  It’s likely that by letting people hear the audio, it would have trivialized it to the point that it didn’t seem as relevant, simply because it was on the big screen.  If you heard the tape as Herzog or the coroner did, the event would surely seem more real, and thus, the maximum effect attained.

Then again, playing the audio could easily have had the opposite effect, whereby it was so horrific that the audience would miss the message of the documentary, (that being the audience members feeling slightly sorry for Treadwell and ultimately understanding his cause).  Take for example the “Faces of Death” videos that started to come out in 1978 and had at least 4 different episodes through the 80s.  These videos show, almost entirely, real people dying.  By the end the effect seems a repulsion of the audience.  These films are so graphic that all one takes away from the film is (a) a more hardened stomach and (b) the belief that humanity is cruel.  Would Herzog have wanted audience members to leave the film with the sole idea that bears are cruel?  Herzog had the belief that nature was more raw and cruel than Treadwell portrayed it, but he includes enough of Timothy’s psychology to make it clear that he wants us to feel sympathy for Treadwell.  In the end, Herzog didn’t really want us to dislike Treadwell solely because he brought another individual into his seemingly crazy living habitations with the bears.

To get around using the audio in the film, Herzog uses a few separate scenes that graphically depict his death.  The first was the coroner describing the death from what he heard.  One learns what was said, and how long the actual tape was.  Because the coroner was describing the death with a dead body in front of him and the fact that he talks specifically about the parts of Treadwell that he found, the images that I imagine are greatly exaggerated.  Yet, the coroner was only part of Herzog’s devices used to describe the audio without showing it.

Herzog proceeds to show himself in the film listening to the audio directly from Treadwell’s camera.  Not only does Herzog listen to the footage, but also describes what he is hearing for the audience while talking directly to Timothy’s friend, Jewels.  In the film, Herzog tells Jewels that she must never listen to the footage, at which point she breaks down in tears.  Listening to Herzog describe the events of audio recording make my mind wonder and I imagine the worst.  It seems pretty obvious that Herzog had intended to do this before listening to the tape, simply because he recorded himself doing it.  Yet, after a personal conversation I had with Jewels later, she informed me that Herzog was deeply moved and troubled by the audio recording.  She said he was shaking and did no more filming that day.  She told me that he had to sit down later and drink several glasses of hard liquor.  This combined with the fact that I still have not heard the audio, make the incident seem more mysterious and dramatic.

Throughout the film the audience in some way expects to hear the audio that we know was recorded.  From the beginning of the film, Herzog makes it clear the audio exists.  Yet, by not showing it, the audience leaves the film still thinking about what could have happened.  In the end, this has a much greater effect on the audience than the real footage could have, and thus, Herzog, the master filmmaker that he is, gets the maximum audience effect.

Works Cited

  • “Faces of Death” – 1978 VHS, MPI
    home Video

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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