'Fire of Love' Recalls a Time When Scientists Were More Daring and Artistic

Sara Dosa's feature documentary chronicles the life, love, and professional passion of volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft.

Fire of Love documentary
Sundance Film Festival

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Remember when scientists made documentaries? If not, Fire of Love is here to join such films as Jane, Playing with Sharks, and Becoming Cousteau, all of which benefit from the footage that their subjects shot for their own movies. Fire of Love similarly molds a biographical portrait of its legendary scientists with the material, some of which is recontextualized for the life-story narrative. And viewers will mostly be in awe of the spectacular shots of volcano eruptions and lava flows, which could also be found in the old films Maurice Krafft directed himself, though most of them seem to be out of print anyway.

As for the almost-all-archival documentary that Sara Dosa has directed employing that footage and more, it’s still as fascinating as its aforementioned kin. The feature tracks the life’s work of Maurice Krafft and Katia Krafft, married volcanologists known for daring to get closer and closer to their specimens of study in order to properly examine and document their activity, their hazards, and their beauty. In 1991, however, they endangered themselves for the last time, dying beside each other (and along with 40 others, including another volcanologist) during a pyroclastic surge during the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan.

Decades earlier, they began their work focused on the safer variety of volcanoes, otherwise known as the “red” type, which isn’t too lethal so long as you don’t accidentally stumble into its lava path or stand in the path of a projectile “volcanic bomb” ejected from the crater. After witnessing the 1980s disasters at Mount St. Helens and then Colombia’s Nevada del Ruiz — the latter a real-life Don’t Look Up situation where government officials ignoring scientist warnings cost the lives of more than 20,000 people — the Kraffts turned their attention to deadlier “grey” volcanoes. During this late phase of their lives and careers, they worked toward more cautionary efforts. It was a risk they took to save others, but it killed them.

Actress and filmmaker Miranda July narrates Fire of Love, sometimes providing straightforward exposition and context for the visuals and other times going a little whimsical in her voiceover. But it’s always the Kraffts’ own words that do more to give an understanding of their individual personalities and passions, their relationship, and their profession. We see and hear them in their films, on talk shows, and in the case of Katia’s written texts, via voice-actor. And as it turns out, I only felt a desire to write down their quotes, such as Maurice’s claim that “The open sea, by comparison, sucks!” A diss to Cousteau, perhaps?

Maurice is portrayed in as the more fearless and the more spirited half of the couple. He’s the one who took a raft out onto a lake of sulfuric acid, against Katia’s wishes (for some reason Wikipedia claims she was the one in the raft…), and who talks of wanting to one day canoe down a river of magma. But we also just see more of him because he was the filmmaker and showman, the one who did the majority of public appearances. She is shown to have been the author of their partnership, publishing books of her photographs and their scientific facts and findings whenever they’d get back home to France from the latest volcanic event.

July’s narration offers some additional understanding of the Kraffts, but for the most part, what we see is what we get. What was and what is available to get. And it’s plenty for the purposes of this depiction of the couple’s love story with each other and with volcanoes (“I want to be intimate in the belly of the volcano,” Maurice says, “even if it kills me one day.”). The footage, too, is more than enough for the visual thrill, and I’m sure that much of it, whether it appeared in previous films or not, has been restored and touched up to look even better and to fit with the animation and stealthy inclusion of “recreated archives.” Fire of Love is one of only a few docs I saw at Sundance this year where I’d have definitely preferred an in-person theatrical screening to the virtual-fest screener on my television.

The film is also much more accessible overall than some of its descriptions imply given July’s involvement and an evident slight kinship with French New Wave cinema. Not that audiences should accept everything said or seen as authentic, from what I’ve gathered from a couple of interviews, but Fire of Love adheres to a basic chronological narrative plot, perfectly organized and edited (by Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput) and soundtracked (by Nicolas Godin of the duo Air, which also has a couple of old songs mixed in). If you’re a regular doc watcher, you’ll have already heard about the Kraffts thanks to Werner Herzog‘s Into the Inferno. But with this film, you’ll come away a fan of the couple and their work.

And as usual with this kind of scientist-filmmaker biography, it’s all the more unfortunate that the subjects’ original creations aren’t available. We can be thankful that today’s documentarians are going through the archives of this rare subset of cinema and giving the footage new outlets for discovery along with new purpose, but at the same time, it makes me sad for the absence of the entirety of the Kraffts’ legacy and their art (and as this doc points out, the films are apparently as creative as they are academic), just as I am sad for the absence of the Kraffts themselves. They were more than this. Well, at least we have this.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.