The subjects of Sara Dosa’s new documentary “Fire of Love” are Maurice and Katia Krafft, married French scientists who have dedicated their lives to the study of volcanoes. Really, however, it might be more accurate to describe the couple, who died in a volcanic eruption in 1991, as co-directors, as they were the ones who captured the most striking images in this curious and obsessive.
These still and animated images record the before, during and after volcanic eruptions on several continents. Some of them are terrifying, as molten rock shoots skyward and ash clouds roll down the sides of the mountains. Others are eerie, capturing the glow of an active crater or the otherworldly outlines of newly formed rock. The mere existence of these photos is mind-boggling when you consider how close people are to the cameras versus the lava and smoke.
The Kraffts, who grew up in Alsace, France, and met at the University of Strasbourg, were devoted to each other and loving Etna, Stromboli, Nyiragongo and other volatile stains. As the movie says — and archival interviews and TV appearances confirm — their shared interest wasn’t just about work. It was an all-consuming and ultimately fatal passion.
Maurice was a geologist and Katia a geochemist, and the difference between these disciplines is an occasional source of corny humor. A geologist, Maurice suggests, is someone who paddles a dinghy through a lake of sulfuric acid, while a geochemist has the good sense to stay ashore to take measurements and take samples.
The narration, read by Miranda July, points to contrasts in temperament between the scientists that are apparently confirmed by the images. Katia, birdish and wry, kept track of the data and took the still photographs, while Maurice, who looks like a curly-headed lion cub, gave public lectures and wielded the camera.
In the field, tiptoeing through streams of lava or trudging through ash and mud, they wore matching red woolen caps and silver insulated suits and, occasionally, metal helmets that stretched over their shoulders to protect them from molten debris. “Fire of Love,” which also includes animated sequences, has a bit of the willful enchantment of a children’s book. Even Maurice’s flights of philosophical rhetoric – he and Katia were French intellectuals, after all – have a naive charm, expressing an inexhaustible, star-studded sense of wonder.
The objects of this fascination are deadly destructive and terrifyingly unpredictable, but, for the Kraffts, the danger was part of the appeal. “Fire of Love” is a romance darkened by tragedy. The fact of the couple’s deaths is established early on, and by the time the details are filled in at the end of the film, you more or less know what’s to come. What might look like carelessness stems from a devotion that takes on a moral, even spiritual dimension.
There’s a reason volcanoes have, throughout human history, been worshiped and appeased like gods. Maurice and Katia Krafft represent a secular and scientific variation of this religion of yesteryear. They aspired to the sublime, but they also wanted to be useful. “Fire of Love” makes much of the distinction between the relatively predictable “red” volcanoes and their deadlier “grey” counterparts – “those that kill”, as Maurice puts it.
During their later years, the Kraffts spent most of their time studying the killers, hoping to discover patterns that would allow people living on the path of destruction to escape. They risked their lives to do this, and the film asserts that their sacrifice was not in vain. More than that, it preserves their work and their idiosyncratic and unforgettable human presence.
fire of love
Rated PG. Geological violence. Duration: 1h33. In theaters.