A More Athletic Approach

An Interview with Werner Herzog

by Cynthia Fuchs


PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Werner Herzog is perched on one of those not-so-comfy hotel settees, half-sofa, half-chair. He rises and smiles, weary and imposing. The 63-year-old filmmaker doesn’t count talking about his work among his favorite activities—as he puts it, “I have a more physical approach than a cerebral approach, a more athletic approach”—but he remains enthused about his new documentary, Grizzly Man. It traces the life and death of animal activist Timothy Treadwell, who spent some 13 years camping in Alaskan bear sanctuaries and what he called “the grizzly maze.” In October 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by a grizzly in the Katmai National Park and Reserve.

Most all of Herzog’s movies explore indistinctions between truth and fiction, the ways we tell, comprehend, and need stories. Like his previous films (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Even Dwarfs Started Small, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Where Green Ants Dream), the new one considers processes of self-invention, through competing drives to community and individuality. “I think Treadwell has affinities with Woyzek and Kaspar Hauser, to a lot of characters that I’ve created,” Herzog says, “I feel as though I was the girl in the fairy tale, and gold coins came raining down into my lap.”

PopMatters: How did you come upon the material?

Werner Herzog: It was a chain of lucky coincidences. I was at the office of Erik Nelson, who works a lot for Discovery Documentary and National Geographic. And he was completely selfless, connecting me with network executives. I’ve done three films for them now, two more after Grizzly Man. At the end of our meeting, I tried to find my reading glasses, and I had my eyes downcast on his table, which was filled with papers, books, half-eaten lunch, and videos. He, thinking that I spotted something in particular, shoves me an article across the table. And he said, “Read this, it’s a fantastic story we are doing.” I read it and returned right away to his office and asked who was directing it, and he said he was “kind of” directing it. I just stared him in the eye, and I said, “No, I will direct it” [laughs].

PM: That was generous of him.

WH: He’s the secret father of the whole project. But he understood there would be a different vision, something helpful to the project. And of course, he had a lot of other work to do. So it’s not pure bank robbery, not a hold-up [laughs]. But I did usurp the project, within five seconds.

PM: How did you construct the film, between Treadwell’s footage and your own?

WH: It’s about half Treadwell’s footage, and half mine. There was no construction, there was just very fast work. I started shooting Labor Day, the fourth of September, and on the third of October, 29 days later, I delivered the film. So there was no thinking, no reflection.

PM: But you had to go through quite a bit of his footage?

WH: Sure, over 100 hours. It would have taken me about a fortnight just to view it. So I had four intelligent people who sifted through, with very clear directives about what to look for. I kept looking over their shoulders. And I ended up seeing about 15 or 20 hours of his footage. I make my choices very fast and they are irreversible [laughs].

PM: So much of Treadwell’s film seems to be a process of self-invention, remaking his own choices, going back and…

WH: ...and repeating, yes. Sometimes he was dissatisfied, and would erase it. He was like a professional filmmaker, and didn’t want anyone to see his failure on camera, he would tape over it. Sometimes there were 15 takes of a scene, as he would name them on the tape, but what we see is take number two and take number five, and take number 15. And all the rest he would erase. What he left was meant somehow to be part of a big movie, where he would be the star.

PM: As you were watching all this footage, what was your sense of how he understood an audience?

WH: I can only guess. But I think he tried to address an audience who was feeling like him, that there was harmony in nature, that the bears were good and fluffy. You see this all-pervading Disney-ization of wild nature on tv, and because of that, I have an ongoing argument with him throughout the film, I contradict him. And he saw himself as Prince Valiant, and stylizes himself, though I think the haircut was more because of his receding hairline, as his friend tells us about it in the film. [His self-representation] has a certain charm and it touches me, very deeply. I like him also for the times when he failed and wrestles some meaning for his existence. He says it verbatim, “I had no life, and now I have a life.”

PM: And he also touched other people.

WH: Yes, in particular, children. He addressed tens of thousands of schoolchildren over the years, and none of these children will ever harm a bear. So he was a great educator.

PM: And yet, as you put it in the film, he crosses a kind of invisible boundary.

WH: It was immediately evident, you see his quest to be close to the bears, even morph into a bear. And I and other people argue against that in the film, including the museum curator in Kodiak.

PM: He talked about it as respecting difference.

WH: Yes. Don’t love the bear, respect the bear. There’s a fundamental difference between these two attitudes. For Treadwell, it was something almost religious, to step outside of your humanness and into an ecstasy.

PM: Is there also a tension, between his individual pathology and his representativeness, so he seems both specific and symptomatic?

WH: There were some moments of paranoia that are very conspicuous, but at the same time he made a lot of sense, he was a great educator. He brought the peril that is out there for the bears into our common consciousness. He shot footage that is unprecedented in its beauty and depth, and he allows us inside, into our innermost human condition. So it’s not so much a film about wild nature as an insight into our nature.

PM: He created some remarkable images.

WH: The film shows these wonderful moments, and I want to give him the space and the credit, as a fellow filmmaker that all of us can only envy. Even if I gave you $50 million of Hollywood money, you could never achieve what he did with a little video camera. And I believe the best of the best is in this film. In a case like this, you have to approach everything with a certain respect, because he cannot defend himself. And of course, I had the eyes of Jewel Palovak [with whom Treadwell co-founded Grizzly People and co-wrote the book Among Grizzlies] upon me, and she is the guardian of his materials, not only the video, but also his diaries.

PM: What was your thinking behind the scene where you listen to the tape she has, of Treadwell and Amie’s deaths?

WH: The background to that scene is that I wanted to listen to the tape. But she would only let me do it in her presence. There were practical reasons; she wanted to make sure I didn’t secretly copy it, even though there was a deep trust between her and me. But I filmed it so you hardly see me, but instead focus on the echo on her face, trying to read my face, the deep anxiety in her face, it’s very moving for me. It wasn’t planned, but as soon as I heard it, I knew she should never listen to it, because she was so close to Treadwell. And out of the blue, I advised her to destroy it, which she did not do. What she did was more intelligent: she separated herself from the tape, she put it in a bank vault. It was the audio from the video camera. What happened was, there was commotion outside. Amie Huguenard is still inside the tent, switches on the camera, but doesn’t have time to remove the lens cap, and drops the camera. So the last six and half minutes that were left on the tape recorded only the audio. And the camera was found inside the tent.

PM: You make an observation late in the film about her absence from Treadwell’s footage.

WH: I wanted to know more about her, because she’s almost excluded from his film. Is he misogynist? Does he not like her? Treadwell hid her presence. In 100 hours of film, there’s only something like 40 seconds of her, trying to duck out of view. He tried to stylize himself as the Lone Ranger. The other side is that I would have liked to talk to her family. A sister apparently was prepared to speak to me on camera, but the family held a council and decided they did not want to appear in the film. So out of respect for the wishes of the family council, I did not pursue that, and she remains the great unknown of the film. She was at the point of leaving him for good, and one of the last entries in Treadwell’s diaries says that Amie confronted him and called him “hell-bent on destruction.” She wanted to leave on the next plane and take a new job she had accepted. And at the moment of the attack, Treadwell screams at her, “Run, run!” and she doesn’t. Instead, she takes up what I assume is a frying pan and starts banging on the head of the bear. Even though this petite woman was about to leave him for good, in the moment of this utmost challenge, she stands by him. There’s something deeply heroic and deeply tragic about her. So of course, I’d like to do a separate film on Amie but I can’t because I don’t have access to what I’d need to understand.

PM: It’s unusual these days for survivors not to appear on camera, what with reality tv and cable news sensationalism.

WH: And not to play the tape, for it would have violated the intimacy of their deaths. It would have been a transgression of your own right to die. As I understand it, no one has heard it except for the coroner and a few park rangers, who discovered it.

PM: The medical examiner [Franc G. Fallico] plays a very interesting role in the film.

WH: Yes, I like him a lot. I told him, “I don’t want you just to be the expert witness in a court of law,” which is his daily routine. I said, “I want to see the human being.” Because his routine is the most horrifying catastrophes, he sees murder victims and ugly deaths on a daily basis. And yet this case shook him to the marrow of his bones. I told him, “You can be the expert in court, but not in my film. You’d better take your pants down now” [laughs]. I was blunt, and I like him for his courage.

PM: So many of the characters seem isolated, even lonely. Certainly Treadwell, who has made something of a choice, though he agonizes about his romantic travails.

WH: [laughs] Very often, you don’t get the chick you want. And what a wonderful man he was, as he advertises himself. It has a wonderful warmth about it, even his stupidities, there’s something very beautiful about him. You see what he tries almost to ignore, the ferocity and vileness of bears.

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