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Fade to Black:
Werner Herzog, Filmmaker

Jul 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Darroch Greer

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For an online exclusive interview with filmmaker Miranda July, click here.

Werner Herzog's reputation precedes him as a mythopoeic filmmaker who overcomes obstacles of his own devising to capture the grotesque and the sublime — what he calls the “ecstatic truth.” We know him for his outrageous gestures: pulling ships over mountains in the Amazon, filming his cast under hypnosis, marching to the edge of active volcanoes and oil fires in Kuwait. Not to mention the appearance of the notoriously volatile actor, Klaus Kinski, in five remarkable films — most notably Aguirre, The Wrath of God. But what is most unsettling about Herzog is the pace at which he works.

“I work fast,” he acknowledges. “I did three films back to back to back since last August and finished them all. And I'm working on a feature film, which I'm starting in August.” Three of these films, opening theatrically this summer, are “documentaries,” though the term is used loosely as Herzog may script, stylize, or fabricate elements of his non-fiction films, depending on the subject matter. Wheel of Time is a pilgrimage with the Tibetan faithful around Mt. Kailas and to the Buddhist festival in Bodhgaya. The White Diamond is a portrait of an aeronautic engineer who built a helium dirigible in order to harvest pharmaceuticals from the canopy of the Amazon rain forest. But, in his latest film, Grizzly Man, Herzog may be upstaged by his subject — another filmmaker.

Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell, the gonzo naturalist who spent 13 summers living with wild grizzly bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park before he was attacked and eaten along with his girlfriend. Over five of those summers, Treadwell shot 100 hours of video with his Sony VX2000 camera. “I give him credit for being totally unusual and a somewhat great filmmaker,” says Herzog. “He gave us footage that nobody else on this planet could have shot.”

There is beautiful footage of grizzly bears grazing and fishing, courting and fighting, as well as footage of Treadwell cooing at the bears and scolding them. He approaches them warily and even swims with one of them. Although it is not known what Treadwell's plans for his footage were, he was clearly on a mission, however quixotic. “Probably he was not a man to really discipline his footage and bring it in to a coherent form,” says Herzog, who went to Alaska with his Super 16 Aaton to put Treadwell's footage into context. He interviewed Treadwell's friends and associates and accompanied the bush pilot who discovered the remains of Treadwell and Amie Huguenard to the scene of the tragedy.

“We had to find an elegant solution for creating a one-format master,” says Herzog, referencing Treadwell's DV tape and his own Super 16 film, “always with the thought in mind, ultimately it will be blown up in a lab to 35mm. …We decided to bring it all into high-definition video — 1,080 lines…. It's very high quality. It looks good on the screen. We have the possibility to improve a few things. Treadwell's screen ratio is not exactly what you are going to see on screen, so I had to cut a little bit on top and bottom. I had to make my choices. How would Treadwell have done it? What are the technical possibilities? Sometimes I even pan within the frame that he shot — very slightly and imperceptibly.”

Herzog spent just eight or nine days editing. “The Avid is a great blessing because I'm not one of those who spend endless weeks and months in editing and create 22 parallel versions and can't decide. I take one decision and that's it. I never touch the footage again.”

When Treadwell and his girlfriend were attacked late in the season by a bear they didn't know, his camera was on and their deaths are recorded on the audio track. Herzog spares the audience this because, as he says, “we are not doing a snuff movie” and “you do have the right of dignity of your own death.” Instead, we see Herzog from behind listening to the tape in the foreground. “What really is important is the mirror reflection of my face in the face of Jewel Palovak, who cannot hear anything — who tries to read my face and is in anguish. That's a moment that nobody forgets. It's one of those moments where I really think, yes, that is a moment where I really, really was at my best as a filmmaker.”

See our online exclusive interview with filmmaker Miranda July here.

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