An Interview with Werner Herzog

YOU MIGHT have thought that Werner Herzog immediately identified Timothy Treadwell with his past screen protagonists like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo—men who unyieldingly exert their personalities against nature—upon learning of his fatal and much- publicized 2003 bear attack. In fact, Herzog explained by phone recently, he only later came upon the subject of Grizzly Man (see review) by accident. "I was out [filming] in the jungle of Guyana—or God knows where. It's strange because these kind of characters, these kind of figures, they stumble across my path. They all of a sudden join you at Thanksgiving, a family reunion, and all of a sudden a strange new sibling is sitting at the table. I was not actually searching for his story. I was searching for my car keys that I had misplaced." Those keys were at the home of producer Erik Nelson, on a table next to the script for Grizzly Man. "Erik says, 'Read this!' I went home and read it and rushed straight back and asked about the status of the film. He said, 'I'm kind of directing it.' Kind of. And I grabbed his hand and pumped it and said, 'I will direct this movie.'" In Treadwell, Herzog continues, the goofy demeanor masks something deeper. "There's humor in it, but you sense the demons that haunt him. When you see Survivor and so on . . . it's all staged, it's all stylized. It's the sort of reality that audiences are sick and tired of. I think people are kind of hungry for something where they can trust their eyes again. And Treadwell is one of those cases where you know this is for real, and this is a real human being with all his tragedy and suffering and self-aggrandizement and his defeats and victories." Was Treadwell's romantic view of nature uniquely naive? "No, I think it's a concept that you find almost everywhere around the world. In highly technological civilizations, there's a sentimentalized view of wild nature, which is completely unknown—we are out of touch. There's an ongoing Disney-ization of wild nature. It's also somehow muddled with pseudo–New Age philosophy. It's all that I don't like. "But I have a hunch: I believe the bears probably redeemed him more than he [did them]. Because he was a man in very, very deep trouble—dependent on alcohol and deep into drugs. He had a near-fatal overdose. In the first encounters with bears was something like an epiphany for him: 'I must protect these animals. It's my holy duty. But a drunk and a heroin addict is not going to protect the bears, so I have to get sober and I have to put my life in order.' It's so tragic, how he dies. It really moves me very deeply."

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