Fire of Love displays dualities and contrasts. It is a love story and a tragedy; it makes you laugh and makes you sad; it is science and so totally human.
Fire of Love screened as part of this year’s SXSW documentary series. The SXSW Conference, which began in 1987, returned this year to live presentations after two years of virtual-only events.
The film tells the story of the work and relationship of two French scientists who studied volcanoes, volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft.
Two Kinds of People
I suppose you could study volcanoes from within libraries, poring over books and newspaper articles. That’s not what the Kraffts did.
Maurice and Katia loved the excitement of streaming lava and fiery explosions. They studied volcanoes close-up from the 1970s till the 1990s. As part of their work, they documented everything with both still photos and film.
Their personalities contrasted. Katia, the still photographer, personified quiet professionalism and attention to detail. She created books to document their work. Maurice recorded things on film and loved making speeches and television appearances.
During the film Katia, voiced by an actress, says that she always walked behind Maurice when they were in dangerous areas because he was heavier and if it was safe for him, it would be safe for her, and because if he were killed, she would want to go with him.
Two Kinds of Volcanoes
Volcanoes come in two varieties: red and gray.
The film shows how the Kraffts spent the initial part of their career studying red volcanoes. Red volcanoes produce huge streams of lava, in some places pouring out into the ocean. If you have seen the volcanoes of Hawaii, you have seen red volcanoes. Maurice comments about walking around lava flows: “It’s no more dangerous than walking on a road in Belgium.”
The gray volcanoes create much more danger for the people who live around them. Those volcanoes often explode, creating towers of ash and debris, creating deadly landslides and surges of super-heated gas. They kill many more people.
As their careers progressed the Kraffts noted that governments often ignored scientists’ warnings about gray volcanoes, causing thousands of deaths. They decided to shift their attention to the gray variety.
They would rush to volcanoes as other people were fleeing. On the slopes of a gray volcano, Japan’s Mount Unzen, they perished as a result of a volcanic explosion in 1991.
Telling Their Story
Dosa’s challenge was to go through the thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of film that the Kraffts created. She did an amazing job in two ways.
First, she created a chronological story of their lives and relationship. Near the beginning of the film, we see the front page of a newspaper with a photo and story about an anti-war protest in Paris. Viewers will recognize both Maurice and Katia in the picture. Near the end of the film, we see a film clip taken by another scientist with the Kraffts in the distance. This was taken several hours before their deaths.
Second, and much more difficult, Dosa created a film with a poetic feel, which is emotionally touching. One comes to admire and like the Kraffts, not only for their dedication and caring for other people, but for their charming and entertaining personalities.
Dosa summed it up, saying, “This is a film about love. Love as baffling and unknowable as a volcano.”
National Geographic plans a theatrical release of Fire of Love later this year.