A fascinating new film tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft – a daredevil married couple of volcanologists who have spent their lives filming erupting volcanoes the globe
Katia and Maurice Krafft were like the Tom Cruise of volcanologists. With a camera, the French couple searched for erupting volcanoes around the world, teetering dangerously close to bubbling lava and toxic smoke, sometimes removing headgear to pose with the magma and boulders rushing in the airs. The couple, finally, were ready to gamble with their lives to document the big, dark and beautiful third wheel of their love triangle – in 1991, they were killed in Japan when Mount Unzen erupted lava and gas at 200 km/h.
Like a Impossible mission film, the images captured by the Kraffts, who met in 1966, were explosive, colorful and testified to human risk. Katia was a geochemist and Maurice a geologist, but together they formed a filmmaking duo who took their adoration of French New Wave cinema to literal hotspots. Often dressed in red hats like Jacques Cousteau and using hard zooms for dramatic effect, they had mastered Wes Anderson’s aesthetic before Anderson hit puberty. Add to the death-defying context of their clips, the Krafft service really delivered the goods.
During the pandemic, Sara Dosa, an American director, combed through 200 hours of the duo’s material to produce fire of love, a fascinating and surprisingly philosophical documentary narrated by Miranda July. “Miranda is an artist whose work I have loved for a long time,” Dosa tells me at the Soho Hotel, the week of the UK release. “She brings such intimacy and universality to her work when considering human relationships. It’s the story of two tiny humans, but they face the enormity of geological time.
Dosa came across the Kraffts while researching her 2019 documentary The seer and the invisible, a character study of an Icelandic “elf whisperer” who claims that trolls and magical creatures live beneath the volcanic rock in his country. Around the same time, footage of the couple appeared in Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary In hell; later in 2022, Herzog will release his own film about the Kraffts titled The inner fire. “Herzog and I see the world very differently, so of course there should be different interpretations of their heritage,” Dosa says. “I don’t see him as my rival in any way.”
While Herzog’s presence exceeds, for example, the voice of Timothy Treadwell in graying manDosa made an effort to cross out fire of love in the style of its subject – or at least their influences. “The aesthetics of the French New Wave came through in the work of Katia and Maurice, and we wanted to let ourselves be guided by them first and foremost,” she explains. “The narrator in Godard Male Female has this very deadpan, almost neutral voice. It was really important that Miranda’s voice wasn’t too distracting. We wanted the images to be primarily felt.
Early in their relationship, the Kraffts put their passion into protest, even making the front page of a French newspaper covering a march against the Vietnam War. However, Maurice claimed to be “disappointed in humanity”, and they turned to volcanoes – especially those about to erupt. To fund their independent lifestyle, they published 19 books, made television appearances, and licensed image and video rights. Did they also want to be filmmakers on the big screen?
“Maurice joked that he was a wandering scientist and volcanologist, and he used movies as a way to get around,” Dosa says. “They were skilled science communicators who were happy to have their work widely publicized. But they didn’t want to focus on film. They didn’t see themselves as movie stars.
One exception is a clip from a western tribute the Kraffts shot with friends in Mexico. “We almost saw ourselves as geologists trying to make sense of their records. This cowboy scene was something we stumbled upon in the dailies. I don’t think they wanted anyone to see it. Were there then ethical considerations as to which images to use, if they were not all intended for public consumption? “Absolutely. We worked with Maurice’s brother, Bertrand, who entrusted the material to an archival house… We consulted with their friends and colleagues. We wanted the film to match their true spirit as much as possible.”
One of the dilemmas Dosa faced was the David Attenborough conundrum: the material was arriving without sound. In order to create a layered soundscape, Dosa and his team did extensive research while taking a subjective approach. For example, a visit to Indonesia’s Anak Krakatau, a volcano known to be a “monster,” has subtle dinosaur sounds lurking in the mix. “Even though this is all grounded in the real science of it all, we would add these textures so you can really get inside the minds of Katia and Maurice.”
Dosa is unsure of her next project but reveals that fire of love was born when plans for another film, end of the earth, collapsed in 2020 due to the pandemic. The documentary reportedly took Dosa to the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia where, since 2014, mysterious explosions have occurred in various craters. “Climate scientists thought that microbes that had been dormant for thousands of years were awakening and their metabolic functions were releasing methane which was bubbling under the permafrost and exploding. Some people in indigenous communities spoke of the spirits of the dead rising and claim the life of the living.
Meanwhile, the Yamal Peninsula has the largest natural gas reserve in the world. “The film was going to look at these different interpretations of methane, how it explodes and what that means for climate change. It was going to be told through the prism of magical realism. It’s something really terrifying that’s going on. »
It remains to be seen whether fire of love will inspire a TikTok craze of volcanic selfies, but Dosa hopes viewers will follow in the Kraffts’ footsteps — but not literally. “I don’t expect people to go to the edge of the craters,” she says. “I hope they understand security.” In 2021, Dosa and his team visited the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland when it erupted. “We were on a mountainside, watching the mountain erupt. My brain literally couldn’t process the colors I was seeing. It gave me a deeper empathy for Katia and Maurice. I understood why they felt like moths drawn to a flame. It’s so deep to think that this is how the Earth was formed.
In a kaleidoscopic montage, the volcanoes begin to look like the natural version of the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey – or maybe something more organic. The hot friction of tectonic plates rubbing against each other, the sticky goo that squirts out during the eruption, and even the shape of openings in the ground – is this supposed to be a Rorschach test for identifying perverts?
“Katia and Maurice really saw volcanoes as their own love language,” Dosa replies. “It seemed natural to use volcanic images to tell their love story. The quotes aren’t in the film, but Maurice was talking about the sensuality of volcanoes and how he saw them as an erotic force. Rather than hearing him say that , we show it instead. I’ll let the audience get what they want from it. But what’s most telling is when you see Katia near a rock face, and she lovingly touches the obsidian or the wrinkled skin smells of hardened lava.These moments feel like true intimacy.
fire of love is in UK cinemas on July 29