Katia and Maurice Krafft’s marriage was fueled and consumed by the heat of the volcanoes

Reviews by Joyce Glasser fire of love (July 29, 2022) Cert PG, 92 mins

In the documentary by director Sara Dosa for National Geographic fire of love, the explosive, hot, dangerous and seductively beautiful nature of volcanoes is used as a metaphor for the passion that bound French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft in life and death. It’s an apt metaphor for their unique story, told against the backdrop of the amazing footage they willingly risked and ultimately gave their lives for.

Digitizing the best of thousands of hours of footage and photos taken by the Kraffts themselves, the filmmakers scoured their vast archive thirty years after their deaths to tell this story of a shared obsession. Unfortunately, her choice of Miranda July almost quenches the fire with her annoying voice and frequently patronizing narration and the “millions of unanswered questions” that the narration references.

Born in the middle of World War II in the hotly contested region of Alsace (now France), Katia and Maurice met in 1966 when Katia Conrad was 24 and Maurice Krafft was 20. Their shared penchant for escaping humanity may have played a part in their earliest memories of the war, but they bonded through their love of Mount Etna. They went to the volcanic island of Stromboli for their honeymoon and children had no place in their plans.

There’s not much about her private life in the film and producers lament the lack of footage of the two interacting. What is documented is in Katia’s books and Maurice’s films – done to earn money for her expeditions. There are also a few TV appearances where they talk about their quarter century of chasing volcanic eruptions together in Iceland, Zaire, Colombia, America and Japan.

Hairy, round, and cheerful as a teddy bear, Maurice was a geologist with a fondness for dinosaur fossils, and Katia (who studied at the University of Strasbourg) was a geologist, petite as an elf with short hair, round glasses, and a lively smile.

In a television interview they are asked what they talk about when they are “out on the rocks”. Maurice replies mischievously, “Katia talks about food all day.” That’s the only time food or the mundane problems of housekeeping and life in general come up.

The couple believed “once you’ve seen an outbreak, you can’t live without it” and only felt frustrated when it was late or the need to make money caused scheduling conflicts. Maurice says: “I’m not a filmmaker. I’m a traveling volcanologist who has to make films to get ahead.” But the films are her legacy.

During the first summers of their relationship, they studied Mount Etna and Stromboli with a group before setting out on their own. We see them in makeshift heat protection suits like something out of a sci-fi movie. Despite the gear, Maurice’s leg was burned by hot mud (of about 140 degrees) two years after they met, but that would hardly stop their explorations.

Five years later, on Nyamulagira in Zaire, a volcano that lies between two tectonic plates, they look down into a huge abyss as 1,200-degree hot lava plunges down in a matter of seconds and sucks everything around it like a black hole. “We’re crazy to stay,” says Maurice, “but we’re doing it. Curiosity is stronger than fear.’

Katia loved charging into craters, but she adds: “We avoid making mistakes.” Where Katia drew the line was when Maurice insisted on canoeing in the world’s largest sulfuric acid lake. She sits on the shore while he ventures out with another geologist. “I like to do what I’m told,” he says, an indication of his motivation. However, the mission is quickly over as the acid begins to eat into the bottom of the canoe.

The decision to replace the usual “talking heads” with Miranda July’s lyrical narration was probably made to balance the film, since Maurice does most of the talking, or to fill the screen with amazing images instead of talking heads. But in this case, a few volcanologists or other qualified experts would have been helpful to put the Kraffts’ work and legacy into context and learn how their films and photos contributed to the studies being conducted by a small community of volcanologists were carried out.

We learn almost a little about this post when the Kraffts are part of a group in the mid-1980s that urges governments to warn locals about impending eruptions if they can be predicted. But after hearing that the Colombian government ignored them, at the cost of up to 25,000 deaths in a massive eruption, we hear no more about this project.

However, the scenes of these two mortals chasing lava flows and frying eggs on rocks are impressive, episodic and lack the suspense of daredevil documentaries like man on the wire or Free Solo, National Geographic’s documentary about climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. The Kraffts weren’t athletic daredevils.

However, the Kraffts scientists are not scientists in the traditional sense of the word either. For one, they renounced the scientific classification of volcanoes. They believed that each was unique within two very general categories of volcanoes. The red ones spit out terrible showers of red lava, while the gray ones produce huge plumes of smoke that are actually more dangerous than the red liquefied gas volcanoes.

And it was the pyroclastic flow — the rapid stream of scorching gas — of Mount Unzen’s gray plumes of smoke that killed the Kraffts and another volcanologist in 1991. He surprised them with the speed of his reach as they staked him out with the camera fully loaded.

Katia and Maurice Krafft’s marriage was fueled and consumed by the heat of the volcanoes

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