Overview:

Sara Dosa’s documentary on the love, work, and deaths of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft is a feast for the eyes and mind.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“I would always like to be near craters, drunk with fire, gas, my face burned by the heat…there is the pleasure of approaching the beast, not knowing if it will catch you.”

Had Katia (who spoke these words) and Maurice Krafft lived another decade or two past 1991, they would’ve been called adrenaline junkies. It’s not normal to paddle a secondhand boat to the middle of a lake of sulfuric acid. Most don’t aspire to skim another vessel down a river of lava.

But Katia and Maurice weren’t amateurs, thrill-seeking for the hell of it. They were volcanologists: Katia a chemist, Maurice a geologist. Across 25 joyous years together, they chased eruptions across multiple continents, until one finally took their lives.

Fire of Love, Sara Dosa’s masterful documentary, opens with footage of the Kraffts’ penultimate day together, so their final fate is no surprise. This narrative choice allows us to focus on their life and work.

And what lives! What work! Fire of Love smartly skates past their first two decades in postwar Alsace—of which little is known anyway—to get to the good stuff. Mercifully, there are no talking heads bloviating on their accomplishments. Instead, Dosa tells the story of the Kraffts by sifting through hundreds of hours of footage taken by Maurice. Occasional paper cutout animation gives additional perspective, with narration by Miranda July.

Neither took comfort in religion…each recognized that life ends with a period, not a semicolon’s pause before a heavenly hereafter.

If you’re working towards a degree in the earth sciences, Fire of Love won’t be of much help. We hear a bit about plate tectonics, and the difference between more placid “red” volcanoes (Hawaii’s Kīlauea, Zaire’s Mount Nyiragongo) and the impulsive, deadlier “gray” volcanoes (Mount St. Helen’s, Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz). Red volcanoes secrete lava when tectonic plates pull apart, while gray volcanoes explode as plates collide.

Rather than a science lesson, Dosa graces us with stunning images made possible by the Kraffts’ daredevil ways. Hypnotic lava closeups, cooling from orange to black. Intimidating, racing lava rivers. Superheated rocks exploding into the sky. Yellow crystalline sulfuric acid formations. Ashen landscapes laid to waste.

At 93 minutes, Fire of Love doesn’t overstay its welcome, and Dosa’s film is near-perfect. If I want to nitpick, one or two editing choices briefly fail to situate us in location and time, and one of the songs on the soundtrack is only a tier below “Hallelujah” in terms of cinematic overuse.

But this is my favorite 2022 documentary so far. Beyond the magnificent images, the quote opening this review is just one example of the Kraffts’ philosophical lyricism.

Fire of Love gives the impression that Katia and Maurice’s first love was red volcanoes, until St. Helen’s unanticipated vehemence killed a friend. Afterward, their passion for measurement and education turned towards predicting the timing and deadliness of gray eruptions.

Katia and Maurice were so single-minded, they chose not to have children. Of the two, Katia was calmer, more detail-oriented. Maurice was more daring (a relative term for the Kraffts), expansive, and grandiose.

Both impress me as fine examples of lived humanism. Their mistrust of society, especially in the wake of the Vietnam War, led them to spend more time in wild nature. Lord Byron’s “I love not Man the less, but Nature more” springs to mind.

Yet the Kraffts’ passion, skilled photography, and knowledge resulted in several books for the lay public. Their detailed governmental safety reports helped save thousands of lives.

Neither took comfort in religion, finding their peace in each other and their vocation. To borrow from the stage play Wit, each recognized that life ends with a period, not a semicolon’s pause before a heavenly hereafter.

The Kraffts were fatalistic (or realistic), predicting their boldness would one day kill them. Despite this, Maurice felt he saw enough beauty for a hundred-year lifetime.

Watching Fire of Love, I believe him.*

4.5 out of 5 stars

(Fire of Love is now playing in theaters.)

*Addendum: As my wife and I were driving home from the cinema, we shared our surprise that Werner Herzog has not created his own film about the Kraffts. My favorite openly secular director working today, Herzog has made a 60-year career of telling stories with protagonists pushing the envelope of what it means to be human. (For the uninitiated, Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo are great starting points.)

Lo and behold, the day I originally published this review, I discovered that Herzog released his own Krafft documentary this month, The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft. Heartfelt and aesthetically satisfying, it would make an excellent double feature with Dosa’s film.

Writing and delivering his own narration as usual, Herzog states at the outset of The Fire Within that he does not intend to be comprehensive with his film. Rather, he wants to honor the lives and imagery created by two humans who lived fully, and meaningfully.

Though shorter than Fire of Love, Herzog’s film feels less hurried. He lingers on Maurice’s dreamlike footage of lava, its color gradations ranging from yellow to purple. Herzog’s tone is one of “wish I could’ve been there, too” admiration, from one adventurous filmmaker to another.

The Fire Within also spends more time on the Kraffts’ non-volcanic images. After Nevado del Ruiz erupted in 1985 and killed more than 20,000 Colombians, the Kraffts looked increasingly at the human cost of volcanic eruptions. The images of corpses, wrecked homes, and homely objects coated in ash are Pompeii-like in their pathos.

This change in the Kraffts parallels a late-life shift in Herzog’s perspective. Once wry and nearly clinical in observing human foibles, there’s greater compassion and warmth in his recent films: his consideration of 21st Century loneliness in Family Romance, LLC, and his portrait of travel writer and friend Bruce Chatwin in Nomad. I hope this trend continues.

(Watch The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft on Vudu.) 

SECULAR CINEPHILE Movies have been a lifelong consuming passion, with vivid childhood memories of staying up late for James Bond on TV and standing in line for the original Star Wars movie. I still...