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Werner Herzog has just come from lunch, and given that his new documentary features Alaskan grizzlies, it seems only fitting to ask if he had salmon. The 62-year-old filmmaker, who approaches every subject with immense gravity, gets the joke. “I did not,” he says, with a hint of a giggle.

Lunch, however, is just one of the many subjects that are no laughing matter to Herzog. Growing up in postwar Bavaria, he explains, “I remember being hungry for about two years. I mean really hungry. It comes very hard for me to throw away food.

“I just ate down in the restaurant,” continues the director, looking shabbily aristocratic in a tan suit whose sleeves and lapels are lightly stained. “I’m the one who is kind of conspicuous because my plate is completely cleaned. I order exactly what I need, and I leave. On a deep level, I know the value of food. It’s very shocking for me to see affluent people throwing away so much food. It’s not only America—it’s all over the highly technological world.”

Herzog always perceives the dark side of things—which makes him the natural foil to Timothy Treadwell, the subject of his latest film to be released in the United States. (He’s also completed two others in the last year or so and is at work on another.) Grizzly Man sums up the career of Treadwell, a self-proclaimed “defender” of Alaskan bears who had a childlike faith in the affability of the large predators—until one of them killed him and girlfriend Amie Huguenard in 2003. Using the bear lover’s own videos, Herzog has constructed a film that is both a tribute to Treadwell and what the director calls an “ongoing argument” with him.

Moving perilously close to his subjects, Treadwell captured extraordinary images. He also shot many hours of his own gushing remarks about the wonders of bears and foxes, and his passion for them. “Of course he wants to be the movie star, and I give him the space to be the movie star,” says Herzog. “He deserves it. But that is only one facet of his personality. He was a very complicated character. He has created footage of unprecedented beauty and intensity. I really respect him for many things he has done out there.”

Herzog believes that Treadwell’s declarations of devotion to the animals, however theatrical, were heartfelt. “He left about 100 hours of footage, and it’s over and over and over again that he steps right in the middle of some bears, not further away than arm’s length, and sings to them and tells them how much he loves them. It’s ad nauseam. Only a very little bit of that footage is in the film. But I think there was something genuine about it—and, I think, also genuinely wrong. I have the feeling you should not love the bears. You should, rather, respect them. Have respect and stay away. And the bear will stay away from human beings as well.”

Like Treadwell, Herzog has a profound relationship with wild places, demonstrated by his many films shot in the jungle, notably 1972’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and 1982’s Fitzcarraldo. The director dates this affinity to his unstructured rural childhood. “We grew up without the presence of fathers. They had all died in the war or were in captivity,” he says. “So we took charge, as children, very early on. We invented our own toys and we invented our own games. We had to be very imaginative.”

Herzog insists that, despite his constant hunger, “it was a wonderful childhood. It was the best you can imagine. Growing up in ruins makes you the king of a whole bombed-out block. You defined the kingdom, and it’s your magical place, where you are at your best. Coping with a situation that is seemingly hopeless gives you self-reliance. You roll up your sleeves and you just start to do something about it.”

This ethic endures in the director’s unflagging work on such recent projects as Wheel of Time and The White Diamond, both documentaries, and the as-yet-unreleased The Wild Blue Yonder, which he describes as a science-fiction film. The director also appeared last year in Incident at Loch Ness, essentially playing himself in a mockumentary directed by a new Hollywood pal, Zak Penn. “I had the feeling it was healthy to have some self-irony about myself,” he says.

He can be so productive, Herzog explains, because he works fast. In making Grizzly Man, for example, “from the moment I started to shoot until the delivery of the cut of the film, including the commentary and the recording of the commentary, it was 29 days. The film was edited in eight, nine days. Before anyone realized I was gone for shooting, I had already delivered the film.”

If that sounds cocky, Herzog gives much of the credit to the grizzly man, to whom he usually refers formally, using his full name. “About half the film is my footage; about the other half is Timothy Treadwell’s,” he says. “It came very easy to me, because there was such depth and beauty in his material. It’s always easy to edit material that has great substance. You only run into trouble if you have footage that is weak. But whatever has substance always fits together.”

Herzog credits Treadwell with “a natural talent for movie-making. It’s a fresh look, a look that has not been distorted and trained by film schools or by the Hollywood system. I want to give him credit for that.

“I don’t see him as an amateur,” he adds. “I don’t make the distinction between amateur and professional. I make a different distinction. What you see on the screen, is it good or is it bad? Does it have a deep impact on you or does it not? That’s my distinction.”

There are two things that Grizzly Man doesn’t capture, for different reasons: a sense of Huguenard’s character and the final moments of her and Treadwell’s lives, which were recorded only on audio. Rather than include the latter, Herzog shows himself listening to the tape for the first time, wearing headphones.

Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend and pro-grizzly ally, Jewel Palovak, inherited his videos, and “didn’t want me to listen to it at all,” the director notes. “She would only allow it in her presence so that I could not secretly make a copy of whatever. What is fascinating is that in the film you don’t see much of me; you see only from over my shoulder. And how her face looks trying to read my face, in the kind of deep anxiety and horror that she reads into my face, is extraordinary. It’s a moment that I feel was good. How I did it—good filmmaking. I do not always succeed, but that is one of those moments that really touches me very deeply.”

Herzog says that when he listened to the tape, he immediately knew he wouldn’t use it. “We were not going to do a snuff movie. It would violate the memories of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard to publish it. It was a spontaneous thing that I said, ‘You must never listen to this.’ Because she was very close to Treadwell. And No. 2, ‘Destroy the tape.’ What she actually did was very intelligent. She put it in a safe-deposit vault in a bank. Now it’s locked away and separated. She did not heed my advice, but I think she had a very good solution.”

As for the almost complete absence of Huguenard, Herzog says, “I believe it was a stylization of Treadwell to portray himself as Prince Valiant or the Lone Ranger. Out there, in complete loneliness, defending the bears against the bad world, the bad guys who were scheming to poach them. In this stylization, a woman would not fit. So he denies her presence. In the 100 hours of footage, we find 40 seconds of her. And I used it all in the film.”

The globe-trotting Herzog has been based in Los Angeles for the past four years and concedes that he’s “looking for new alliances, for new horizons, for new audiences.” Thus Grizzly Man, his most widely distributed film in the United States in more than two decades. Yet he’s quick to note that “I married there. It’s not that I’m out there for Hollywood.”

Indeed, Herzog’s filmmaking ideal remains less Steven Spielberg than, well, Timothy Treadwell. He notes that some of his films, such as the 1977 short La Soufrière and the 1971 feature Land of Silence and Darkness, have been made with only one or two crew members.

“It’s always a physical approach, very elementary, that doesn’t use so much apparatus,” he says. “In a Hollywood crew, you would have 250 members, and to move this crew and to do something spontaneous is almost impossible. What Treadwell shot is utterly impossible for Hollywood.”—Mark Jenkins