Songs call love a burning thing, and for French scientists and spouses Katia and Maurice Krafft, that love burned white-hot over decades of exploring volcanoes. They trekked across cooling masses of lava, camped next to eruptions, and inched as close to the heat as possible.
“Me, Katia, and the volcanoes—it’s a love story,” Maurice says in the remarkable documentary Fire of Love. Director Sara Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen, The Last Season) relates their love through spectacular footage from the Kraffts’ lifetime of work, archived interviews, playful animation, and the calming, poetic narration of Miranda July (Kajillionaire).
An unusual mix, perhaps, but the Kraffts were an unconventional couple. They fell hard for volcanoes as children; Katia marveled over the lava flow of Italy’s Mount Etna while Maurice scrambled around the country’s Mount Stromboli. In each other in the late ’60s, they found a fascination with the natural world’s mysteries, married in 1970, and went on to visit over 300 volcanoes. Dosa lists a few as co-stars, including Nyiragongo in Zaire, Anak Krakatoa in Indonesia, and Mount St. Helens in Washington State.
The two died on June 3, 1991, during the eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen, caught in a huge, fast-moving cloud of volcanic matter and gases called a pyroclastic flow. The eruption killed 43 people to whom Dosa dedicated the film. The last known shot of the Kraffts shows them in red and yellow rain slickers, tiny against the mountain’s grandeur.
“Volcano runners,” Maurice described themselves in one interview during their career. “We live by the rhythm of the earth, and the earth decides where we go next.”
Katia later amended this: “Certain colleagues see us as weirdos.”
Dosa, cinematographer Pablo Alvarez-Mesa, and editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput lean into the couple’s humor, using Lucy Munger’s animation to illustrate narrative gaps. Katia took photos, Maurice shot video, and sometimes, other volcanologists came along. The couple dances on the edge of one crater and camps next to others for weeks, taking turns sleeping to watch for molten chunks of flying lava. Maurice fries eggs in a pan on a cooling lava flow and impishly tosses a volcanic rock at Katia’s head to test her protective helmet.
It’s not all fun and games, though. First drawn to study what makes the earth tick, the two later documented this destructive power to urge government officials to evacuate people under certain conditions, such as when a volcano shivered “like a sick person,” or breathed a different combination of gases.
To the Kraffts, volcanoes have unique personalities, and their stunning footage indeed brings these phenomena to life. Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary Into the Inferno, which featured the Kraffts, showed plenty of fiery debris and eruptions, with scientists in protective silver suits like astronauts. Fire of Love brings viewers even closer to percolating and erupting craters. Lava churns and flows in black and neon-red waves, as if from another world. In one sequence, Katia caresses cooled shapes of lava while elsewhere it merges and drips until it breaks off in chunks under the sea, set to the French song “Je me sens vivre” (“I feel alive”).
The thrill of what Katia called “these untamed elements” and their curiosity outweighed any fear, causing them to travel the globe chasing volcanic activity. “Once you see an eruption, you can’t live without it because it’s so grandiose. It’s so strong,” she said.
The two were pragmatic, noting their lifestyle likely would kill them. Katia worried about Maurice’s safety, such as when he and another geologist took a rubber boat on a sulfuric lake to collect samples. Yet she also said she didn’t want to die without him.
“Our lives are just a blink compared to the life of a volcano,” Maurice said. Fire of Love conveys that sense of awe, both at these natural marvels and at how two people who adored them found each other.