A mesmerising new film tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft – a pair of married, daredevil volcanologists who spent their lives filming erupting volcanoes around 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 globe, teetering dangerously close to the bubbling lava and poisonous smoke, sometimes removing headgear to pose with the magma and rocks hurtling through the air. The pair, ultimately, were prepared to gamble with their lives to document the tall, dark, handsome third wheel of their love triangle – in 1991, they were killed in Japan when Mount Unzen blasted out lava and gas at 125 mph.
Like a Mission: Impossible film, the footage captured by the Kraffts, who met in 1966, was explosive, colourful, and a testament 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 hot spots. Often dressed in red hats like Jacques Cousteau and utilising hard zooms for dramatic effect, they mastered the Wes Anderson aesthetic before Anderson hit puberty. Add in 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 mesmerising, surprisingly philosophical documentary narrated by Miranda July. “Miranda’s an artist whose work I’ve 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 she’s contemplating human relationships. This is a story about two tiny humans, but they’re set against the enormity of geologic time.”
Dosa came across the Kraffts while researching her 2019 documentary The Seer & the Unseen, a character study of an Icelandic “Elf whisperer” who claims that trolls and magical creatures live beneath his country’s volcanic rock. Around the same time, the couple’s footage appeared in Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary Into the Inferno; later in 2022, Herzog will release his own film about the Kraffts called The Fire Within. “Herzog and I see the world very differently, so of course there should be different interpretations of their legacy,” Dosa says. “I don’t see him as my rival by any means.”
While Herzog’s presence overtakes, for instance, Timothy Treadwell’s voice in Grizzly Man, Dosa strived to helm Fire of Love in the style of its subject – or at least their influences. “The French New Wave aesthetic showed up in Katia and Maurice’s own work, and we wanted to be guided by them first and foremost,” she explains. “The narrator in Godard’s Masculin Féminin has this very deadpan, almost neutral voice. It was really important that Miranda’s voice wasn’t too distracting. We wanted the imagery to be most primarily felt.”
Early into their relationship, the Kraffts poured their passion into protesting, even making it onto the front page of a French newspaper covering a march against the Vietnam War. However, Maurice claimed to be “disappointed by humanity”, and they pivoted to volcanoes – specifically ones about to erupt. To fund their freelance lifestyle, they published 19 books, made TV appearances, and licensed image and video rights. Did they want to be big-screen filmmakers, too?
“Maurice joked that he was a scientist and a wandering volcanologist, and he used filmmaking as a means to wander,” Dosa says. “They were skilled science communicators who were happy their work got out far and wide. But they didn’t want to focus on filmmaking. They didn’t see themselves as movie stars.”
An exception is a snippet of a western homage the Kraffts shot with some friends in Mexico. “We almost saw ourselves as geologists trying to make sense of their archives. That cowboy scene was something we stumbled across in the rushes. I don’t think they intended for anyone to see it.” Were there ethical considerations, then, for what footage to use, if it wasn’t all for public consumption? “Absolutely. We worked with Maurice’s brother, Bertrand, who entrusted the material to an archive house… We consulted their friends and colleagues. We wanted the film to feel as in line with their true spirit as much as possible.”
One dilemma faced by Dosa was the David Attenborough conundrum: the material arrived without sound. In order to create a layered soundscape, Dosa and her team did heavy research while also taking a subjective approach. For instance, a visit to Indonesia’s Anak Krakatau, a volcano known for being a “monster”, has subtle dinosaur noises hidden in the mix. “Even though it’s grounded in the true science of it all, we would add these textures so you could really get into Katia and Maurice’s mind.”
Dosa is unsure of her next project but reveals that Fire of Love came about when plans for another film, End of Land, fell apart in 2020 due to the pandemic. The documentary would have taken Dosa to the Yamal peninsula in North-West Siberia where, since 2014, mysterious explosions have occurred in various craters. “Climate scientists thought that microbes that have been dormant for thousands of years were waking up, and their metabolic functions were releasing methane that was bubbling up underneath the permafrost and exploding. Some people from indigenous communities talked about spirits of the dead rising up and reclaiming lives of the living.”
Meanwhile, the Yamal peninsula has the largest reserve of natural gas in the world. “The film was going to look at these different interpretations of methane, how it’s exploding, and what it means for climate change. It was going to be told through the lens of magic realism. It’s a really terrifying thing that’s happening.”
It’s yet to be known if Fire of Love will inspire a TikTok craze of volcanic selfies, but Dosa hopes that viewers will follow in the Kraffts’ footsteps – though not literally. “I don’t hope that people go the edge of craters,” she clarifies. “I hope they understand safety.” In 2021, Dosa and her team visited the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland when it was erupting. “We were on one mountainside, gazing at the erupting mountain. My brain literally couldn’t process the colours I was seeing. It gave me such a deeper empathy for Katia and Maurice. I understood why they felt like moths drawn to a flame. It’s so profound to think that this is how the Earth was formed.”
In one kaleidoscopic montage, the volcanoes start to resemble nature’s version of the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey – or perhaps something more biological. The hot friction of the tectonic plates rubbing against each other, the sticky goo that squirts upon eruption, and even the shape of the openings in the ground – is this meant to be a Rorschach Test to identify perverts?
“Katia and Maurice really saw volcanoes as their own love language,” Dosa replies. “It felt natural to use volcanic imagery to tell their love. The quotes aren’t in the film, but Maurice would talk about the sensuality of volcanoes, and how he thought of them as an erotic force. Rather than hear him say that, we show it instead. I let the audience take what they want from it. But what’s most telling is when you see Katia close to a rock wall, and she’s lovingly touching the obsidian or feeling the wrinkled skin of hardened lava. Those moments feel like real intimacy.”
Fire of Love is in UK cinemas on July 29