Over-Realizing Shalom: Theological Ethics of the Creaturely in Grizzly Man
With Brett Potter on July 11, 2016

We are excited to present the fifth in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God's unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. We still have three open spots in our series, so there is still room for your contribution.

This article discusses Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man in detail. - Editor


My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. - Daniel 6:22

What remains is his footage. And while we watch the animals in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. And that, for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to his life and to his death. - Werner Herzog, from Grizzly Man (2005)

Does knowing the end of the story change the way we experience it? One of the questions I asked my documentary film students this past semester was whether Werner Herzog’s classic doc Grizzly Man (2005) would be different if we didn’t know that the subject of the film, Timothy Treadwell, a cheerfully obsessive bear enthusiast living among the grizzlies in a remote part of Alaska, was ultimately killed and dismembered by the very animals he sought to protect. In film editing, chronology – the order in which events are revealed on screen – is always bound up with truth. It is worth considering what would happen to the film from an emotional standpoint if Treadwell’s death was a surprise, withheld from the audience until the fateful moment.

The film might then read as an outright comedy, for Treadwell’s antics among the bears are often playful and entertaining; he is a relentlessly effervescent character, and his melodramatic, often manic energy reads on-screen as the height of comic absurdity. In contrast, in the way the film is actually structured, his tragic death – alongside his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard – bookends the film. We thus watch Treadwell’s story even at its sunniest with a sense of dread, as if a shadow looms over the narrative. Every time we see a bear, we wonder – along with the distinctive voice of Werner Herzog himself, whose philosophical incantations pervade the film’s soundtrack – if this is the beast who will eventually turn out to be the killer.

There is, however, a second way in which the story narrated in Grizzly Man is oriented toward a narrative “end.” Timothy Treadwell’s problem, from a Christian perspective, is eschatological. For in choosing to live without protection among the wild bears of Alaska, Treadwell unknowingly manifests what theologians call an “over-realized eschatology,” one that behaves as if the biblical promise of future perfection – of shalom – is already completely actualized in the present. In Isaiah (11:5-7, and then again in 65:25) we are famously given the eschatological image of the animal kingdom made peaceful and friendly:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
   the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
   and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,
   their young will lie down together,
   and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

This is an eschatological, future hope, rich in metaphor. Perhaps it is not about animals at all. But for Treadwell, such a perfect world of harmony and a deep love between all things is possible right now – the wolf and the lamb, the lion, the bear and the man, can coexist together in a relationship of love and respect. Without knowing it, Grizzly Man investigates what happens when this prophetic passage is lived out in the present.

Film as Mirror

John Grierson, the early Scottish-Canadian filmmaker and producer, famously defined documentary film as “the creative treatment of actuality.”[1] A documentary film, in other words, takes the real as its raw material and in doing so transmutes it into a new, imaginative form. Grizzly Man is, according to Bill Nichols’ typology of documentary film modes, a “reflexive” documentary as it constantly draws attention to the process of its own construction.[2] The operative image here is of a mirror – the reflexive documentary holds a mirror up to itself, constantly reminding the audience that every truth it unveils is mediated by the mechanisms of the camera lens, the work of the editor, and the guiding hand of the director. Reflexive documentaries thus reveal, rather than conceal, the fact that we do not see naked reality, but actuality as (re)presented by the filmmaker.

Though this form is characteristically postmodern, sometimes used for parody or to deconstruct notions of authorship, in Grizzly Man reflexivity is put to a more existential use.[3] Herzog’s film, though it features some interviews with his friends and family, mainly consists of the video footage Treadwell himself shot before his death, edited together to tell his story in sequence. It is thus a film about making a film, a documentary which narrates in great detail the process by which it has been collected and stitched together, all moving inexorably towards Treadwell’s death. Moreover, the filmmaker himself becomes a character within the film; we follow Herzog’s journey of discovery as he makes his way through Treadwell’s video footage. It is this reflexive mode in which the story is unfolded which makes its character study so humane and moving, and which implicates subject, filmmaker, and viewers alike in a process of ethical discernment.

Editing always involves selection, and here what we are not shown on screen is as important as what is. Amie Huguenard, Treadwell's girlfriend, is the first ghostly absence in the film, only briefly appearing in two shots from Treadwell’s footage before the attack. We want to know more about her, but the lack of footage turns us back upon the filmmaking process itself; we are left to form her image according to our own understanding. The second excluded element is the audio recording of their death, which the filmmaker gains possession of but does not include in the film. We see Herzog listening to this horrible artifact; shaken, he takes off the headphones and says that it should be destroyed so no one has to hear it. The tape thus becomes a kind of gravitational nexus in the film, an unspeakable presence-in-absence, which forces us as viewers to reflect on why our desire for narrative would drive us to want to hear (or see) so horrific an event.

These absences are mirrors, forcing us to consider our own understanding of the story and of the nature of documentary filmmaking. But in this story of man and beast, “nature” itself is also mirror. As Norman Wirzba notes, the advent of modernity ushered in an attitude towards the natural order wherein “the world’s intelligibility and value [were] increasingly seen to depend on a meaning-bestowing rather than meaning-discovering self.”[4] In other words, within modernity, nature has no intrinsic meaning or purpose in itself or because it has been made by a transcendent Creator; meaning is something humanity imposes upon it. This can be seen in the transition from the language of “creation” to a concept of “nature,” and is closely tied to our willingness to instrumentalize the natural world in accordance with our desires. The concept of “wilderness” is similarly “the invention and projection of human longings and desires,” a “profoundly human creation.”[5]

Timothy Treadwell’s idyllic vision of the world inhabited by animals reiterates a nineteenth-century version of “wilderness,” where the Alaskan frontier possesses its own perfect harmony of peace and love – a pristine, unspoiled beauty threatened by the incursion of humanity. In other words, nature serves for him as a reflective surface, presenting him with the image he wishes to see. But this vision is incomplete: the animal world, the “wild,” is not perfect or ideal, or characterized only by love and respect. The bear eats because it is hungry, and attacks in the thrall of ancient instincts which exist completely apart from human ethics. We misunderstand it if we see it only in anthropomorphic terms.

It is Treadwell’s sentimental, naïve perspective on the animal world that confounds Herzog even as he is irrevocably drawn to Treadwell’s fascinating and charismatic character. Grizzly Man paints a picture of a man who believes wholeheartedly in his spiritual connection with the bears, indeed with all of nature. Treadwell chases a wild fox through the brambles, and later names it Timmy; it becomes his companion, sauntering along beside him. He weeps over the body of a dead fox, perhaps understandably, but also cries and laments the tragedy of a dead bee he finds in a flower. The bears receive an even more sentimental, emotionally fraught treatment. Filming their every move, in a self-produced, self-hosted nature television show, Treadwell becomes obsessed with the bears, investing them with an unreciprocated emotional attachment – perhaps, as the filmmaker ventures, to the point of wanting to cross the animal-human line permanently and become a bear himself. In one unforgettable scene, Treadwell gleefully plunges his hands into a pile of bear excrement, overcome with emotion at his proximity to the magnificent wild creatures.

The paths of the filmmaker and his documentary subject part ways. Where Treadwell sees love and beauty in the bear’s eyes, Herzog sees only boredom and hunger. Showing his existential cards, the filmmaker intones in his languid German accent, “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” It is a striking statement which points to Herzog’s own bleak eschatological orientation.

Living in Tension

We would do well to consider the tension between Treadwell’s and Herzog’s perspectives from a Christian standpoint. The opposite of the condition of death and senseless “natural evil” is what the Hebrew Bible terms shalom. This is a term which in the Hebrew Bible connotes not just peace but also the larger concepts of wellness, completeness, welfare, prosperity, and safety. Moreover, the larger horizon of God’s promise of future shalom throughout both Testaments – the hope of eschatological restoration – involves the creaturely world. From Genesis onwards, there seems to be an indication that in the time to come, nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) will lose its sharp edges. One reading might suggest as there was once no death in Eden, so in the New Heaven and New Earth, death, even animal death and predation, will be no more. Perhaps all humans and animals will be vegetarians.

One might look at the story of Daniel as an anticipation of this utopian future. As scholars have pointed out, Daniel’s refusal to eat meat in the early part of the book is paralleled by the lions’ decision not to eat him. Some thus read his divinely-motivated vegetarianism as enacting a “human-animal mutuality” in counterpoint to the hierarchical chain of being exemplified by the emperors Nebuchadnezzar and Darius.[6] Here the shalom of the future is indeed realized in the system of earthly relations. The Christian tradition continues with such stories of reconciliation between man and beast, such as St. Francis of Assisi stilling the wolf of Gubbio.

Yet such blurring of boundaries is not always positive. Nebuchadnezzar himself, of course, becomes an animal, transgressing the boundary between the human and the animal in his flesh: “He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (Daniel 4:33). Genuine “human-animal mutuality,” moreover, is the exception rather than the rule. There are few indications that the kind of peaceable kingdom envisioned by Isaiah is anything other than a promise – we ought not to lay down with lions, or the grizzlies, this side of the eschaton.


That Grizzly Man is an unusual film is no surprise considering the rest of Herzog’s filmography. The first film of Herzog’s I ever saw was Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), a film about a Spanish conquistador which ends with a strange and cathartic monkey attack; Fitzcarraldo (1982), a film about a quixotic quest to build an opera house in the Amazon Basin, pushes the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, genuine danger and artifice, featuring as a plot point an actual steamship which the director had dragged across a mountain at great risk to the actual cast and crew.

Grizzly Man is a story about the boundaries between humans and animals – a boundary Timothy Treadwell seems eager to transgress. As a reflexive film, it thrusts us into ethically ambiguous domain, forcing us to recognize that shalom is still on the horizon – we are not yet in the peaceable kingdom. Treadwell forgets this, and the consequences are deadly. Yet Herzog’s view takes things to the other extreme – that there is no meaning in nature, only competition, murder, and the satisfaction of hunger. This too is a mirror for a certain view of nature and of humanity. The Christian response must lie in the middle.

It takes a film to bring this paradox to mind. As Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote some thirty years ago,

“Art is not isolated from the radical fallenness of our nature. It is an instrument of it. Art does not lift us out of the radical evil or our history but plunges us into it… But the Christian speaks also of redemption. He dares to say that the ultimate drift of history is toward the attainment of justice in shalom; for he believes that God Himself is working toward that goal, not being willing to abandon His favoured creatures with justice never won and peace never attained.”[7]

Documentary film, like the arts in general, “can serve as instrument in our struggle to overcome the fallenness of our existence while also, in the delight which it affords, anticipating the shalom which awaits us.”[8] This encapsulates perfectly a proper eschatology for film – one that holds the present and the future in creative tension. Though idealistic and naïve, Treadwell’s hope is one worth maintaining from a Christian standpoint. There is indeed a “drift of history” toward shalom and fulfillment; the world, wet with blood, is not as it should be. Yet we must not take a shortcut from creation as it is now to the kairos eschata or time to come; when we look in the mirror of nature, we must try to see not only our own faces, but the “grace and ferociousness” it has as God’s creation. We say, along with Gerard Manley Hopkins, “long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

[1] John Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary,” Grierson on Documentary, ed. Forsyth Hardy (London: Faber & Faber, 1966).
[2] Bill Nichols, “What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of their Own?” from Introduction to Documentary, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010): 67-93.
[3] For a film which exemplifies both of these tendencies, see Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).
[4] Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: a Christian vision for understanding and loving our world (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 43.
[5] Wirzba, 37.
[6] See Jennifer L. Koosed and Robert Paul Seesengood, “Daniel’s Animal Apocalypse,” in Divinanimality: animal theory, creaturely theology, ed. Stephen D. Moore (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2014): 182-195.
[7] Wolterstorff, 84. Wolterstorff’s work on art and aesthetics is been applied to documentary film by Carl Plantinga in “A Theory of Representation in the Documentary Film, PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1989, 25-40 See Dirk Eitzen, “When is a Documentary?: Documentary as a Mode of Reception,” Cinema Journal 35:1 (Autumn 1995): 81-102.
[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: toward a Christian aesthetic (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 84.

Brett David Potter lives in the suburban wilds of Toronto, Canada, where he is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of St. Michael’s College. In addition to playing music and making apocalyptic video art, he teaches theology and the humanities at places like Sheridan College, Queen’s University, Tyndale Seminary, and the Institute for Christian Studies. His research is in the area of theological aesthetics, which flows from his background in film, art, and pop culture. He can usually be found drinking coffee and watching Miyazaki movies with his wonderfully creative wife and two kids. Twitter: @brettdpotter

2 Responses to "Over-Realizing Shalom: Theological Ethics of the Creaturely in Grizzly Man"

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    by zaiyamariya on Apr 8th, 2020 at 10:16 pm
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