Two French volcanologists meet and fall in love in the late 60s, have an explosive and volcanic relationship, both with each other and with the volcanos that they love, and they die together at the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991. The whole thing sounds stranger than fiction, and it would be, really, except that Katia and Maurice Krafft were two of the most renowned, pioneering volcanologists to date, and they left behind an astonishing amount of film footage, photos, and writing, that, well, blew open the modern study of volcanoes.
Fire of Love is the story of the Kraffts and their pioneering study of volcanology. When Katia states at one point, “Curiosity is stronger than fear,” that may as well be a statement of their research style. Getting killed by a classic, lava-spewing volcano, Maurice explains, is very difficult as you can tell exactly where lava is going to flow. Because of this lack of fear, the Kraffts took still-amazing film footage of fiery eruptions and glowing, molten rivers, as chunks of cooling magma dropped out of the sky around them, sometimes bouncing off their rudimentary metal hoods. In their silver protective suits, they looked like retro astronauts against a bright orange backdrop of a churning wall of fire. I actually screamed at the film at one point, “NO NO NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!??” when one of them tapped their boot on still glowing, cooling lava. Oh god, oh god, just please, please just back away…
When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, for Pacific Northwest kids like myself it created the same level of excitement as if dinosaurs had come back to life in our own back yard. But for volcanologists like the Kraffts, it was a wake-up call. Sure “red” lava-spewing volcanoes were more sexy and interactive, but these “gray” volcanoes were more unpredictable and far more deadly. Of two volcanologists who died in the Mt. St. Helens eruption, one was their long-time friend David Johnston who famously reported from his campsite, “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” as the side of the mountain slid away. From that moment, the Kraffts knew that they needed to pivot their research to the explosive gray volcanoes.
The Kraffts had a fascinating flair for the dramatic. As they made their films, they were well aware of how to frame a good shot and how to film what looked like a natural transition. In the opening scene, at first I thought it was a recreation as their jeep gets caught in icy mud and the camera angle changes to show Maurice getting out of the vehicle to dig them out. Later in the documentary, you do see “outtakes” of them setting up and reshooting multiple “scenes” to make it look natural, and it was clear that they were never as alone as it looked. Because of this flair for the visual, the Kraffts (especially Maurice, the one more enamored of media) probably would have loved the fact that their hundreds of hours of footage has been spliced together to make this narrative film of their career. But this time around, they are the unequivocal stars of this ultimate story about the power of volcanoes.
Narrated by the dreamy, lyrical voice of Miranda July, Fire of Love is a scientific quest, a romantic fairy tale set against the back drop of what most of us consider the landscape of nightmares, with its molten rivers of lava and suffocating clouds of ash. “‘Understanding’ is love’s other name,” July says, as we see the lovers in their sci-fi, metal-helmeted protective outfits, silhouetted against fiery red lava shooting in the air. Though I can’t say I understand that level of passion for danger, I was absolutely along for the ride. Fire of Love is easily one of my favorite films of the year.