The first time I truly understood what the word “awesome” meant was when I looked into the caldera of Hawai’i’s Kilauea volcano. The size of the volcano, the remnants of eruptions past, and the knowledge that under the gray crust in the crater, molten rock was churning, waiting for its chance to escape. Thus, the obsession Alsatian vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft had with seeing volcanic eruptions is something I can relate to, if not on their scale, then certainly in that irrational place where attraction grows.
With Fire of Love, director Sara Dosa pays tribute to the pioneering work of this married couple—scientists who got as close as possible to upwards of 200 active volcanoes, photographing and filming eruptions, taking samples and readings of lava and gases, and creating books and movies to pay the bills and spread information to lay audiences and scientists alike. Much of the film is composed of the footage they shot themselves.
Like the first blush of love, Fire of Love suggests that the couple, who began visiting volcanoes together in their mid-twenties, were initially thrilled with the adventure and potential danger involved. The strange perspectives Maurice captured on film often make it look as though Katia is inches away from a wall of spewing lava. Other images show the raw power of volcanic blasts, some of which have sent ash more than 25 miles into the air.
Over time, however, the human toll of volcanic eruptions set them on a path to developing early-warning systems and evacuation plans for communities in harm’s way. We get to see their footage of the vast leveling of trees and widespread ash that rained down from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State and the 1985 eruption of Nevada del Ruiz in Colombia that killed at least 25,000 people. The latter tragedy might have been prevented if the Colombian government had been willing to spend the money to create warning and evacuation systems after scientists said there was a 100 percent chance of a massive, imminent eruption.
We hear the Kraffts being interviewed as the media darlings they became, talking about their marriage and their work. Maurice was an inveterate risk-taker who was content with the possibility that a volcano would take his life. Katia’s views on dying are not included in the narrative, but we learn that she was afraid that if she lost sight of Maurice, she might never see him again. It seems to me that Katia really didn’t want to die in an eruption, but sadly, that’s just what happened to her, Maurice and 41 others at Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991.
Whether close-up observation of volcanoes really is necessary to understand them and prevent deaths isn’t dealt with in this documentary. Certainly, the cowboy nature of vulcanologists would lead them to think so, even though Katia strongly disagreed with two scientists who got in a rubber raft and floated onto a volcanic lake with high levels of sulfuric acid, supposedly to take readings.
How we view the Kraffts would not have worried them, however. They chose this isolated, dangerous life and lived most fully on the lips of the volcanoes that finally gave them the kiss of death.