Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds hitting Apple TV+, we’re highlighting some of the iconic director’s best documentaries.
It’s unlikely that Werner Herzog had final say over the fact that his nature-centric documentary Grizzly Man arrived in theaters less than two months after the nature-centric documentary March Of The Penguins. But that’s exactly what happened, with Grizzly hitting limited release in North America right around the time those penguins marched into nearly two thousand theaters, providing a rich counterpoint to Penguins and its gentle humanization of the animal world. Ultimately, March would become one of the highest-grossing docs of all time. Herzog’s less family-friendly film would not.
Yet it’s Grizzly Man that has the more visible human element, in the form of Timothy Treadwell, the oddball who shot much of the actual footage Herzog showcases in the film. Treadwell spent 13 summers in the Alaskan wilderness, observing and interacting with grizzly bears as a self-described “kind warrior” and self-appointed environmental protector (though he was often on land that was already federally protected, and his utility as a guardian of the natural world is repeatedly questioned). Herzog’s film mixes Treadwell’s nature adventures with interviews about him—though none with the man himself, of course. As the movie reveals early on, he was killed by bears at the end of one of his missions.
If Herzog allows himself to start hyping the project in his opening narration—“I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil,” he says of examining a hundred hours of Treadwell’s videos—maybe it’s because he views himself as collaborator with his subject, who “captured such glorious improvised moments, the likes of which the studio directors… could never dream of.” It’s true that Treadwell’s footage is often astonishing, even after years of streaming video making first-person animal observations easier to access than ever. (YouTube went online just six months before Grizzly Man was released, and blew up culturally just a few months afterward.) The animals that Treadwell so loved are shown to be beautiful, fearsome, and—contrary to his assumptions—not much like people at all.
Talking like a cross between an enthusiastic schoolteacher and a flaky park-bench hippie, addressing bears like they’re mischievous cats, and doing multiple takes of his direct-to-camera addresses, Treadwell makes a fascinating and sometimes contradictory central figure, especially when his family reveals more about his past. But while Herzog’s interjections about the metaphorical state of Treadwell’s psyche can be a little ham-handed, the director is also ultimately a leavening agent when his subject appears more and more unhinged. No amount of hacky Herzog impressions (and one suspects that this movie in particular inspired more than a few) can do justice to his sincere disagreement with Treadwell’s point of view, culminating in a confession that the filmmaker “believe[s] the common character of the universe is not harmony but hostility, chaos, and murder.” This doesn’t mean he’s disdainful of Treadwell. He spends a lot of Grizzly Man attempting to figure out why a filmmaker and showman became so convinced he belonged among the bears. Herzog made his own form of nature doc about the stubborn, quixotic behavior of humans in the wild.