Volcanoes deliver almost too perfect a vocabulary with which to talk about love and passion; words like heat, fiery, and intense come to mind. There’s something carnal about them, mysterious and violent and yet also beautiful—existing in the most extremes this Earth knows, much like emotion itself.
Katia and Maurice Krafft are extremists. At least, they were. Married volcanologists, they spent decades walking up to the edge of danger—the lips of boiling cauldrons of lava, feet away from spewing geysers of fire, in the shadow of lethal mushroom clouds of ash—in order to collect data, study, and photograph the world’s most active geological wonders. Call it a love triangle; they fell in love on volcanoes, but also with them.
In 1991, the Kraffts were killed during an explosion on Japan’s Mount Unzen, leaving behind not only a legacy as trailblazers in their scientific field, but a trove of some of the most spectacular video footage and photography ever captured of their obsession.
Their stunning archive provides the cinematic fireworks show that is dazzling audiences at the 2022 virtual Sundance Film Festival, where Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love has been playing to rave reviews since its opening night debut. The festival’s first intense bidding war took place over the weekend, with National Geographic Documentary Films scooping up rights to the film in a deal reported in the seven figures. It follows a trend in recent years where documentaries like Boys State and Knock Down the House have emerged as the hottest titles fetching some of the largest price tags at the festival.
Like the best kinds of documentaries, Fire of Love is a portrait of people whose interests, actions, and risks cross over into what most of us watching might find outrageous, and certainly dangerous. The Kraffts were storm chasers of sorts, flying all over the world to eruption sites when everyone else was evacuating.
Dosa reveals the couple’s fate almost immediately in the film, which obviously shades the splendor of their pursuits with a certain darkness. But it also injects a romanticism into the already charming love story.
When you think about it, how unlikely and how beautiful is it that two people were born at the same time, had a passion for the same thing, found each other, and, while indulging that passion together, also brought the rest of us closer to the Earth with their discoveries? Their romance wasn’t star-crossed. It came from the beating heart of the Earth. “Alone, they could only dream of volcanoes,” narrator Miranda July says at one point. “Together, they can reach them.”
Over the course of Fire of Love, you learn how in sync, but also how individual, the Kraffts were. Katia has a tiny frame. She is inquisitive, but she is also quiet. When she speaks about volcanoes, it is with precision and clarity. Of the pair, she’s more cautious and safety-minded. Maurice is gregarious, an imposing man with a head of conspicuous curls and a taste for showmanship. While Katia put together books and arranged the details of their travels, he made TV appearances and gave speeches on the lecture circuit.
“Katia is like a bird,” July narrates. “Maurice, an elephant seal.” When it came to their research, “Katia is drawn to details, the interconnectedness of it. Maurice, the singular, the grandiose.” In one TV appearance together, Maurice jokes, “It’s hard for volcanologists to live together—it’s volcanic! We erupt often!”
There’s a spiritual connection they share, one that is invigorated by their time spent on the trembling, smoking crags of their beloved mountains. You see the gorgeous, unusual, and unsettling orange, red, and black colors of the lava swirling around them, and you understand how these volcanoes deliver a siren call to this couple that they can’t refuse. It convinces you that these two people are programmed for each other—and much differently than the rest of us. The beauty is alluring, but the peril, always palpable, is too much.
They explain that there are different kinds of volcanoes. The red ones are the good ones. The gray ones are the killers. It’s easy to track the flow of a red volcano’s lava. “It’s no more dangerous than walking on a road in Belgium,” Maurice posits. It’s those gray ones, the ones with the surges and explosions of ash and debris, that they become fixated on. One of their dreams is to understand enough about volcanoes that they will no longer be deadly.
“Both Katia and I got into volcanology because we were disappointed with humanity,” Maurice says. “And since a volcano is greater than man, we felt this is what we needed. Something beyond human understanding.”
Their field of work intrinsically altered their perspectives. Their lives are “just a blink,” they say, compared to that of a volcano. Their work was in pursuit of learning as much as they could about volcanoes, but also being humbled by the vastness of just how much they could never know. For them, the unknown was not something to be feared, but to go toward.
They knew the risk of their work. When Maurice burns his right ankle in hot mud early in their relationship, he calls it a “volcanologist baptism.” Then there’s the poignancy of how their love for each other interplayed with the constant threat of death. Individually, they’re brilliant and accomplished. But they can’t do the work without each other.
“Katia’s greatest fear is that she’ll lose sight of him and then never see him again,” July narrates. Katia confirms as much. “I like it when he walks in front of me,” she says. “Since he is twice my weight, I know that wherever he goes, I can go. I follow him because if he’s going to die, I’d rather be with him. So I follow.”
The Kraffts are quirky people, which makes for great movie characters. July’s narration is often in awe of them, but also channels their passion. There’s a poeticism to the film that keeps you from judging them too harshly: Are they foolishly tempting fate, or doing noble work? Then there’s that footage–video of them standing in the foreground of spitting lava and breathtaking explosions, two people in places where humans just shouldn’t be.
Fire of Love is a portrait of the magnificent and the elemental, and how both can be mysterious and magical. And it’s a reminder of how, even in death, there’s much to be learned about life.