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Encounters With Werner Herzog: Grizzly Man
WILLIAM McBRIDE: Every time I go to the Barbican Centre I get lost along the way. In the labyrinthine swirl of streets surrounding Europe’s Biggest Arts Centre, dozens of official signs promise directions, but, like a purgatorial parody, they point due south just one block after they were pointing north. Like London itself, too big for a definitive centre to dominate, the Barbican neighbourhood first engulfs you, and then seems to disappear into its own immensity.

When you do get there, the confusion doesn’t necessarily ease: inside, levels leer over ledges, and you will often spy your destination long before you actually arrive. Like the far-flung boarding gates of Gatwick airport, it’s a good idea to allow: 10 minutes to Cinema 2, 15 to Cinema 3.

Regardless the Barbican’s architectural oddities, it cannot be denied that the breadth of the centre’s programming is excellent.

My appointments on this day are the final screenings of a Werner Herzog ‘director-spective’ presented by Barbican Film. This contemporary German filmmaker has had a startlingly prolific career, with an output of 50+ films oscillating between all genres and budgets. Today’s program – standing in neat counter-point to my hyper-metropolitan surroundings – consists of two documentaries portraying the natural world in all its brutal splendour: the one-man psycho-drama Grizzly Man (2005), set in the Alaskan wilderness; and the extraordinary Encounters at the End of the World(shot in 2007), which salutes the Antarctic extremes and the people who embrace them.

Grizzly Man is by now a film of considerable notoriety, and its ‘premise’ will be familiar to many: Timothy Treadwell lived in the wild with the grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park for thirteen consecutive summers until, one summer, and this time accompanied by his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, one of the bears killed and ate them both. These horrific deaths do not serve as a ‘climax’ in this film so much as an unsettling context, from which Herzog draws out a character-story of a man unable to live contentedly in human society.

Treadwell spent many hours in his own company, filming himself in the Alaskan wilderness, and the footage Herzog has gathered here is by turns remarkable, showing Treadwell approaching, talking at and occasionally touching the immense grizzlies, as well as frequently ridiculous and irritating. Treadwell on camera is alternatively manic, pleading, vain, fey, depressed, enraged, confessional, reflective and faux-TV-presentational. He repeatedly insists on the extreme danger he has put himself in, as well as his valiant devotion to protecting the grizzlies from, it seems, the rest of humankind. Yet there is scant focus to his ‘mission’ to save the bears, beyond a childish empathy for disenfranchisement.

Intercut with Treadwell’s footage are interviews with an inevitable cast of characters who were affected by his life and death: the coroner, national park workers, his parents, friends, and former lovers. They are all, of course, deeply upset by Treadwell’s death, but none of them express any surprise, expressing regret at his gruesome death with a sad resignation.

Treadwell’s self-perception was that he was somehow alone – in his quest to protect the grizzly bears, and in the world in general. But a feeling of alienation from others is surely one of the true hallmarks of the human condition, and to watch Treadwell repeatedly ignore this is frustrating.

It’s easy, therefore, and not invalid, to pursue a character like Timothy Treadwell with a modern psychiatric diagnosis. Was he narcissistic with delusions of grandeur? Paranoid? Insecure? Probably, but a diagnosis such as this would neutralise a shocking true story. Instead, Herzog never sneers at Treadwell’s human failings. With a steady compassion, he depicts a man who struggled greatly to live in the socialised world.


See: Encounters at the End of the World.


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