A new documentary reveals the lives of Katia and Maurice Krafft, trail-blazing volcanologists who paid the ultimate price
Fire of Love
CPH:DOX film festival
ON 3 June 1991, Mount Unzen, an active volcano near Nagasaki in Japan, erupted and sent a deadly pyroclastic surge of hot gas and ash down the mountain. In its path with their cameras rolling were Katia and Maurice Krafft, a married team of French volcanologists and film-makers, renowned for their incredible close-up footage of eruptions. They were killed, along with 41 others.
The Kraffts’ careers and relationship, both personal and professional, are the focus of Fire of Love, a documentary that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah and will be shown this month at the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Directed by Sara Dosa and narrated by the actor and director Miranda July, the film explores the parallels between the love the Kraffts had for each other and their joint passion for capturing Earth’s fury on film.
Dosa delivers a romanticised vision of the Kraffts’ work as they capture stunning images of eruptions and collect data from the edge of volcanoes, while seemingly embracing the dangers of being so close to the action.
For Dosa, their personal relationship is key to making the whole enterprise work. In archive footage, each openly admits that they can’t function without the other. Katia meticulously examines rocks and takes samples with a careful eye, while Maurice’s bold nature pushes them to seek out bigger and better pictures and to get closer to the action.
The ever-present threat of molten lava seemingly did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm. Throughout the documentary, the footage reveals the pair’s charmingly innocent wonder and fascination with their subject. In one scene, we see Katia at the edge of a volcano with no protective gear as lava spurts out. She stands, looking up in awe, seemingly unconcerned by the molten rock raining down around her.
Yet while this sounds like the work of thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies, the film depicts the Kraffts not as reckless or foolhardy, but as a loving couple consumed by a mutual curiosity and passion for adventure.
But the documentary isn’t all about romance and excitement. Brief animated segments about the history of volcanoes give Fire of Love a more educational tone, in which we learn about volcanoes and the devastating fallout of their eruptions. Two notable examples are the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens – which killed 57 people, including a close friend of the Kraffts’, the volcanologist David Johnston – and the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz near Armero, Colombia, which killed at least 23,000 people.
Through these examples, we see that the legacy of the Kraffts’ work extends beyond exciting images. Their footage has been instrumental in illustrating the dangers that eruptions pose to those living in the shadows of volcanoes and persuading authorities to put evacuation plans into place to protect them. The heartbreaking shots of the destruction around Armero in particular show what can happen when volcanologists’ warnings aren’t taken seriously and swiftly acted on.
Above all, though, this is a film that celebrates the love story of a brave couple whose dedication changed our understanding of volcanoes, but ultimately cost them their lives.
“The footage reveals the pair’s charmingly innocent wonder and fascination for their subject”
Through stills and video beautifully edited by Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput, we get to share the Kraffts’ experience of eruptions, seeing Earth’s power with an intimacy that is only possible by standing at the edge of volcanic craters.
A nostalgic score brings a whimsical tone to the footage, and presents their lives as a unique moment in time – a captivating and endearing tale of two kindred spirits who wanted to understand the world and to share their passion with others.
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