Volcanic mountains

The volcanic romance – and deadly legacy – of the couple behind Fire of Love

On May 30, 1991, under the green, forested slopes of Mount Unzen, 30 miles from Nagasaki in the far south of Japan, a celebrity couple pulled up in a rental car. They are Maurice and Katia Krafft, the most famous volcanologists in the world. They had come to film an active volcano that had begun spewing clouds of superheated gas and rock, which predicted an imminent eruption.

For 25 years, the husband and wife team – he, a geologist and filmmaker; she, a geochemist and photographer, had together hunted erupting volcanoes around the world, from Indonesia to Hawaii to the islands off Madagascar. It was to be their last.

Nowadays, drones can be flown in to take close-up images. But then, the next day, the Kraffts moved inside the authorities-designated exclusion zone to get closer to the eruption…if there was one. They were filmed settling in a light rain, dressed in brightly colored raincoats, close to each other, as they had been almost since the day they met, at the University of Strasbourg in 1966.

But the eruption, when it came, was huge. The Kraffts were enveloped by the fast-moving ‘pyroclastic’ explosion – temperatures can reach 1,000C – with the deadly gray cloud rolling towards them at highway speeds. The heat inside was so intense that all that was left of the Kraffts were marks on the ground that showed they were side by side when they died.

Today, two amazing films celebrate their life and legacy. In The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, the great German director Werner Herzog takes the couple’s vast archive of footage and creates a fascinating and poetic stream of images that takes you into the incredibly foreign world that obsessed them. In National Geographic’s Fire of Love, director Sara Dosa tells their story, from their first meeting to their final hours.