- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

Idiosyncrasy and globetrotting define the movie career (dating from 1962, when he was a precocious 20) of transplanted Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose filmography has reached almost 50 titles.

Born Werner Stipetic in Munich in September 1942, Mr. Herzog has been a part-time Los Angeles resident for the past several years. He accompanied one of three recent back-to-back-to-back productions, “Grizzly Man,” to the Washington area when it was selected for viewing at the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs film festival in June. During a day of interviews at the Fairmont Hotel, he tried to account for some of its more peculiar aspects.

Like many of his previous projects, it took Mr. Herzog to a remote corner of the globe, this time Alaska. A considerable amount of the footage had already been generated by the film’s deceased subject, self-styled wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell, who was mauled to death in October 2003, during a return trip to an Alaskan national park to videotape his obsession with grizzly bears.

Mr. Herzog acknowledged that he had never been involved in a project that used so much footage he had not shot himself. The late Mr. Treadwell began videotaping annual trips to Alaska in 1999; he had compiled about 100 hours of wildlife observation and confessional self-observation by the time of his lethal encounter with a grizzly.

“Treadwell is a link in a chain with other family members,” Mr. Herzog comments, alluding to the title characters of earlier, fictionalized movies: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser.” From the Herzog perspective: “Many qualities you find in Treadwell, you find in my other heroes.”

Not that he views the ill-fated Mr. Treadwell as a conventional hero. “Not at all, but he left footage of amazing beauty. Nobody in Hollywood could ever create such scenes. Not for very much money. I give him credit as a fellow filmmaker. While documenting wild nature, he penetrated into human nature. I give him space to be the movie star he always wanted to be.”

What the private moments in the Treadwell documentation reveal is encroaching lunacy. Between attempts to get as close as possible to bears, Mr. Treadwell also turned the camera on himself and preserved recurrent psychotic reveries and rants. While deploring the recklessness that led to calamity, Mr. Herzog is also intrigued by Mr. Treadwell’s need to confess, if only to himself.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” he says. “It’s similar to keeping a diary and writing letters in earlier periods. The video camera is just a tool for documenting the human condition. It’s a tool that defends against solitude. He envisioned himself as a Lone Ranger, but he was never alone. He always had the camera.”

Mr. Herzog estimates that he saw 15 percent to 20 percent of the Treadwell collection. His participation, which involved trips to Alaska to interview people who had known the subject, was compressed into a whirlwind month. A quartet of associates viewed the entire backlog “with very clear instructions” about whittling it down.

If he had ever met Mr. Treadwell, Mr. Herzog says, they would have parted philosophical company. He associates the Treadwell view of nature with fanciful notions of “harmony and balance.” On the contrary, Mr. Herzog says he believes the common denominator is chaos and hostility.

“I am having an ongoing argument with Treadwell over this,” he observes, “even though we never met and he is not alive anymore. To maintain structure and order requires a human effort that is always breaking down and needing to be restored. Our efforts are very short-lived and defy the complete and utter hostility of the universe.”

Warner spurns D.C.

Missing in action this summer: the latest Carroll Ballard feature, “Duma,” which also involves human encounters with wild animals, this time in South Africa. Warner Bros. claims to have “tested” the film in three cities before declining to release it nationally. Because the best national engagement of Mr. Ballard’s enduring classic, “The Black Stallion,” happened 25 years ago at the Avalon, it was a blithe slap in the face to duck Washington as a potential test site. The managements of the Avalon, AFI Silver and Landmark houses might want to look into this oversight.

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