A car chugs across a snowy landscape. Two red-capped figures emerge, pick their way across a ridge of black rock, and stop when they reach its crest: there, in front of them, lava boils out from a volcano. One holds a camera to capture the sight.
They are Katia and Maurice Krafft, a pioneering husband-and-wife volcanologist team—and the subjects of director Sara Dosa’s latest documentary, Fire of Love. Dosa has made four films, and has said that the ways that people relate to the natural world is a major throughline in her work. Her 2014 feature debut, The Last Season, follows two former soldiers who forage matsutake mushrooms in Oregon and earned her a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination. But perhaps the most dynamic example is Fire of Love, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and hits theaters throughout the U.S. this month. Fire of Love pieces together the Kraffts’ lives and work using their own archival footage and photography, along with voice-over narration by filmmaker Miranda July. The fact that the couple could—and in fact would—perish on any of their research expedition frames the narrative. But so too does their reverence for their subject of inquiry. Their mission was grand and romantic. “They used volcanoes as their own love language,” Dosa told me in a recent interview.
As the film recounts, Katia and Maurice grew up in the Alsace region of France just after World War II and rose to celebrity as volcanologists in the 1970s and ’80s. This was the era of the plate tectonics revolution—widespread adoption of the once-controversial theory that the Earth’s crust comprises shifting plates that butt against each other or pull apart, producing volcanic eruptions, among other things. It was also a period of widespread social change and protest; the Kraffts, disillusioned by the atrocities of the Vietnam War, sought meaning through their connection with the natural world. “Katia and I got into volcanology because we were disappointed with humanity,” Maurice says in an interview. “We felt that this is what we need: something greater than human understanding.”
Katia, a geochemist, and Maurice, a geologist, were at the vanguard of volcanology, which was then in its infancy. Among their peers in the field, Katia says in the film, they were seen as “weirdos.” While many of the Kraffts’ colleagues worked in academia or were contracted to governments or extractive industries, Dosa explains, they took a freelance approach, publishing books and making movies and traveling. Their main goal was to be on volcanoes, constantly pushing the boundaries of science and exploration.
Katia and Maurice spent the first part of their career trying to catalog every volcano and eruption they could. The documentary is filled with their hypnotizing imagery of the Earth stretching, bursting open, spilling, and reforming—challenging our assumptions about what it means to exist on solid ground. But later, after observing the devastation of the eruption at Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985, where upward of 25,000 people died because the government had no evacuation plan, they devoted their studies to pyroclastic surges—hot explosions of ash and gas from volcanoes—in an effort to help the public understand and respond to these particularly dangerous eruptions. According to the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who was a science advisor on the film, this is one of the things the Kraffts are still celebrated for today; the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior awards a medal in their name that recognizes humanitarian contributions to the field.
They were controversial figures during their lives, however, because they frequently transgressed what others might consider to be the limits of safety. And that is saying something, seeing as volcanologists are a hardy bunch. In Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary, Into the Inferno, one scientist explains the proper approach to avoid getting smashed by “volcanic bombs,” the projectiles lobbed from the mouth of an erupting volcano: “Try to pick out the ones that might be coming toward you, and step out of the way.”
The documentary is filled with their hypnotizing imagery of the Earth stretching, bursting open, spilling, and reforming.
Sometimes, the boundary between study and stunt appears porous. In one memorable sequence in the film, Maurice takes an inflatable dinghy he bought at a French flea market out on a corrosive acid lake in Indonesia to make measurements, but he really did it because such a thing hadn’t been done before. Oppenheimer met the Kraffts when he was a doctoral student and still recalls the frankness with which they handled the risk of death. “They lived in full knowledge that could happen, driven by the urge to capture something more spectacular, more up close than they had seen before,” he wrote in an email. “Their fascination for all things volcanic knew no bounds—but they also wanted to share that passion with wide audiences.”
Katia and Maurice died on Mount Unzen, a volcano in Japan, in June 1991. Though their fate looms over the film, Fire of Love spends comparatively little time dissecting what happened that day. Instead, it focuses on the legacy of their work. For example, as a result of a film about pyroclastic surges that Maurice helped make, governments in eruption-prone areas started to take the threat of volcanoes more seriously. About 60,000 people were successfully evacuated during an eruption in the Philippines shortly after their deaths.
They left behind roughly 200 hours of 16mm footage, thousands of photographs, around 20 books, and another 50 hours of media appearances: television documentaries, talk show interviews, speaking engagements—reams of material that Dosa and her team combed through to construct their film. They wrote their own books in a vivid first person, toeing the line between scientific inquiry and adventure travelogue. “Very often, they would do a play-by-play of what they experienced in some of these moments,” Dosa says. “That not only allowed us to have a sense of what happened, but also what they felt about it.” They became savvy purveyors of their own mythology as well as science communicators. And they hungrily collected stories and imagery around volcanoes; the animated collage scenes in Fire of Love that fill in some gaps in the narrative appear twee until you learn that they were inspired by the Kraffts’ own troves of images.
“Their fascination for all things volcanic knew no bounds—but they also wanted to share that passion with wide audiences.”
Still, despite this wealth of material, Dosa found there were things that she and her editors, Jocelyne Chaput and Erin Casper, simply couldn’t know. Most of the footage didn’t have sound; sometimes, their research uncovered conflicting stories. The narration is refreshingly transparent about what parts are reconstruction or conjecture—the story of how Katia and Maurice met, for example, or the fact that an actor is reading excerpts from Katia’s diary. “As in love, there are mysteries,” July tells us in narration. “You fall hard for what you know, harder for what you don’t.”
“We thought we should give voice to the unknowns,” Dosa says. “For us, it also felt like it dovetailed with the geological methodology. Geologists are trying to interpret the clues left behind from Earth’s processes.”
Dosa found herself increasingly absorbed by the Kraffts’ philosophy as she pieced together all the evidence they left behind. She was among the droves of spectators who visited the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland as it erupted last summer, choosing the location for an edit retreat after being inspired by her work on the film. “Since they knew that their lives could end at any moment, it did force a clarity of priorities for them. They knew their values,” Dosa says. “Getting in touch with their story and learning about volcanoes in this way has helped me to think a lot more about what’s important to me and how I want to live my own life.”
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