January 21, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sara Dosa
Some language in French with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world, the documentary film “Fire of Love” features an all-white group of people discussing the lives and work of French spouses Katia Krafft and Maurice Krafft, who were pioneering volcanologists in the 1970s and 1980s.
Culture Clash: Katia and Maurice Krafft (who died together in 1991) were so obsessed with volcanoes, including going to as many active volcano sites as possible, these two scientists were often described as “weirdos” by their peers and critics.
Culture Audience: “Fire of Love” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about volcanoes and the fine line between passion and obsession.
The visually stunning but occasionally dull “Fire of Love” is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like nature documentaries. This story about volcanologist spouses Katia Krafft and Maurice Krafft often takes a back seat to the volcano footage. Directed by Sara Dosa and narrated by Miranda July, “Fire of Love” has enough striking visuals that deserve to be seen in a movie theater, but the rest of the movie comes across as a National Geographic TV special. The movie’s constant voiceover narration might annoy some viewers who prefer a “show, don’t tell” approach to filmmaking. “Fire of Love” has its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
It might be easier to understand why there’s voiceover narration in every scene if you know that this documentary has a lot of footage that originally had no sound, according to what Dosa says in the “Fire of Love” production notes. All of the footage in the movie is archival. Most of it consists of 16mm camera footage and photo stills of the Krafft couple’s trips to active volcanoes around the world. Katia and Maurice shot a lot of the footage themselves, while other footage was helmed by colleagues and friends, such as photographer Henry Glicken. A lot of footage also came from publicly accessible archives. The documentary also includes some clips of TV interviews that the couple did over the years, as well as snippets of comments they made in audio form.
July’s narration is perfectly fine, in terms of her tone of voice, for a nature documentary. It’s just that the way that the narration was written tends to have some over-explaining, like a professor’s lecture, when just showing what’s taking place would suffice. The documentary was written by Dosa, “Fire of Love” producer Shane Boris and editors Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput. Fortunately, the musical score by Nicolas Godin balances out the very talkative narration with some deeply moving interludes that give viewers the feeling of being transported to the volcanoes that are on screen.
Katia and Maurice Krafft, who were both natives of France, died during a volcanic eruption on Mount Unzen in Japan, on June 3, 1991. Katia was 49, and Maurice was 45. In the “Fire of Love” production notes, Dosa says that one of the documentary’s scientific consultants was volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who co-directed Werner Herzog’s 2016 Netflix volcano documentary “Into the Inferno,” which also featured archival footage of Katia and Maurice.
Dosa explains in the “Fire of Love” production notes that she chose to make “Fire of Love” as an all-archival documentary instead of conducting new interviews, in order to immerse viewers in the places and times that the footage was filmed. Dosa comments, “We also wanted to maintain the present tense as much as we could. If we had people commenting on the past, it wouldn’t flow as well.”
Dosa also says in the “Fire of Love” production notes that she was influenced by the French New Wave style of filmmaking in making this documentary, which she compares to a “collage.” The movie is told in chronological order, beginning with a brief summary of how Katia and Maurice met in 1966 (there are at least three different stories of this first meeting), how they bonded over their mutual passion for volcanoes, and how they fell in love. The couple eventually got married in 1970.
Early on in their relationship, Katia and Maurice decided not to have children because the couple’s lives revolved around their all-consuming work. It’s also why Maurice and Katia abandoned their brief stint as anti-war activists, which was a lifestyle that they gave up in pursuit of being volcanologists. Although they did a lot of their volcano work by themselves, they eventually invited some friends and colleagues along to help on their excursions.
Katia was a geochemist who preferred to document their work with still photography. Maurice was a geologist who preferred to document their work as movies. How obsessed were they with volcanoes? Maurice is heard saying in a voiceover: “If I could eat the rocks, I’d stay on the volcanoes and never come down.” Katie says in a TV interview clip: “Once you see an eruption, you can’t live without it.” Even if some critics ridiculed Maurice and Katia for being too unorthodox and acting too much like daredevils in their work, Maurice and Katia were comfortable with their own eccentricities and actually enjoyed their “oddball” reputation.
The Kraffts started out as obscure volcano explorers and scientists, but they became famous for taking risks and bringing back footage of active volcanoes that no one else had at the time. Before drones existed, Katia and Maurice often literally had to stand at the end of volcanoes to get the images that they wanted. Because of the intense and potentially fatal heat involved in their work, they often wore astronaut-like suits (many which they designed themselves) to protect themselves. They worked in all manners of extreme weather conditions.
However, that didn’t mean their work was free from physical injuries and problems. During a 1968 trip to Iceland, the documentary says that the couple’s car broke down 27 times. In addition, there’s footage of Maurice accidentally scalding one of his legs in a volcano pit. The documentary also includes footage of Katia and Maurice in Zaire in 1973 and 1977; Indonesia in 1979; Washington state (for the Mount St. Helens eruption) in 1980; Colombia (for the Nevado del Ruiz eruption) in 1985; and their fateful trip to Japan in 1991.
In addition to the danger, there’s some whimsy and quirkiness in the footage. There’s a scene that shows Maurice and Katia literally dancing together on the edge of a volcano precipice as fiery ash blows through the air. Another scene shows the couple and some friends throwing cowboy hats in the air and act as if they’re in a volcanologist version of a Western movie. There’s footage of Maurice handling molten lava (with gloves on, of course) and plays with it like a child would play with putty. In another scene, Maurice fries eggs in a frying pan using nothing but the hot volcano rocks for heat. He deadpans in his opinion of how the eggs taste: “It’s not great.”
The documentary mentions that Katia and Maurice had journals documenting much of their work and inner thoughts. However, it seems like “Fire of Love” could’ve used more of these personal commentaries in Katia’s and Maurice’s own words. There are only a few instances where journal entries are read. Instead, what viewers will get is July’s narration of the filmmakers’ often-flowery descriptions of the couple and what Katia and Maurice did during their volcano excursions.
For example, the opening scene of the film shows Katia and Maurice driving together in a Toyota Jeep up an icy and snow incline. The Jeep gets stuck in the snow, and there’s some difficulty in getting in moving again. The voiceover narration than says, “In a cold world, although watches start to freeze, the sun came and went between blizzards and gusts that erased all bearings. In this world lived a fire. And in this fire, two lovers found a home.”
The fiery lava in the documentary is color-enhanced in the way that Maurice and Katia intended, according to what Dosa says in the “Fire of Love” production notes. Volcano fire is often brought up in the documentary as a symbol of the couple’s passion for volcanoes and love for each other. “What is it that makes the earth’s heart beat?” July asks in the narration while images of gushing lava fill the screen. “Blood flow.”
Instead of showing Maurice’s and Katia’s personalities, viewers get these descriptions from the narration: “Katia is a like a bird. Maurice is an elephant seal. Katia is drawn to details … Maurice [is drawn to] the singular and grandiose.” Katia was more of author and archivist than Maurice, while Maurice was more of a filmmaker and scientific lecturer than Katia.
To its credit, the movie doesn’t get bogged down in too much technical science, since this movie was intended for people who might have very little interest in science. Katia famously said, “Volcano classifications should be banned,” in a TV interview clip shown in the documentary. However, documentary explains volcanoes in the simple and basic level, by describing two types of volcanoes. Red volcanoes, which erupt when plates pull apart, are basaltic and known for spouting lava that can be up to 1,200 degrees Celsius or 2,192 degrees Fahrenheit. Grey volcanoes, which erupt when plates collide, can go off like nuclear ash bombs and are deadlier than red volcanoes.
After watching this documentary, some viewers might still have a lot of questions about Katia and Maurice. How did their relationship evolve over time? What were their biggest goals and regrets? What did they like to talk about besides volcanoes and work? There are some interesting nuggets of information, such as they both knew that they would probably die together, but none of this information is surprising.
If you’re looking for any sexy romance in a documentary called “Fire of Love,” you’re not going to find it in this documentary. The biggest takeaway from the documentary is that Katia and Maurice Krafft’s greatest love was for volcanoes, so the volcanoes are the real stars of the movie. If you know that information before seeing “Fire of Love,” you’ll have a better chance of enjoying the movie for its majestic depiction of Earth, rather expecting a deep-dive examination of a volcanologist couple’s marriage.
UPDATE: National Geographic Documentary Films and Neon will release “Fire of Love” in select U.S. cinemas on July 6, 2022. Disney+ will premiere “Fire of Love” on November 11, 2022.