Film studies: Herzog v Kinski was a fight to the death

David Thomson
Sunday 28 August 2005 00:00 BST

The shot is so balanced, and so lovely, it might be an advertisement for Alaska. And the fact of the camera seems to suggest safety. Aren't there strong men behind it, some with high-powered rifles (just in case)?

No. There is something in the man's manner that is achingly alone. We realise that he has set up the camera, and started its motor. And the bear, we discover, is old, hungry and bad-tempered, as well as close to 500lb. We discover that the man's name is Timothy Treadwell; but we learn something worse - that he died in 2003.This is alarming enough, but there is something worse in this opening shot: it is that Timothy Treadwell, talking to the bear, to himself, to the camera, to the desolation of Alaska, is quite mad. This is a Werner Herzog film.

Herzog (pictured) is 63 in a few days, and he lives in Los Angeles now. Once, neither of those things seemed likely. In documentaries and in feature films, Herzog seemed so pledged to danger and looking into the eyes of mad or alien creatures that he could not survive. He was a phenomenal figure of the Seventies, a primitive, yet very subtle, too, and in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, he established not just a new kind of low-budget epic, but a genre of his own in which the madness of a character never stayed within the confines of a story. During the filming of Aguirre, native tribesmen came up to Herzog and offered to kill the film's star for him. If you don't do it, they said, he'll kill you. They were talking about Klaus Kinski, not just the star of several Herzog films, but the motor. Well, Kinski is dead, but Herzog has rediscovered him in the bears.

Aguirre is a film unto itself, still desperate and beautiful. It is a work of art, but it is a work that leaves you immensely relieved that you were not on that location. I'd have to say - having known both men - that Herzog played Kinski like a great fish. He reckoned that Kinski was dangerous and insane, but crazy like a fox and an actor. Whereas Herzog believed, I think, that his own will and his quiet madness were stronger. He would triumph. So it passed. Kinski died after doing five feature films with the director, and Herzog was left to make a documentary that reflected on their weird relationship.

For the last 20 years, Herzog has seemed calmer, as well as an implausible American. Large feature projects (one on Cortes) never got made, and he turned more to documentary. But the kind of passion that waits in a Herzog does not fade; it only hibernates. It is back in Grizzly Man. Treadwell became a kind of celebrity. He says he longed to protect the bears. Yet Herzog's documentary has the calm voices of the men who found his corpse and that of his girlfriend, who did the autopsies and the burial, and who admit that he was kind of crazy. Grizzly Man restores Herzog to his genre and his "greatness" - yet you wish you did not have to watch, for the madness of Treadwell is encouraged by the zeal of the film.

'Werner Herzog Box Set 2' (Anchor Bay 29.99) is out now; 'Grizzly Man' currently has no UK release date

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