Article Thumbnail

‘Fire of Love’ Is a Tribute to a Married Couple’s Fatal Love Affair With Volcanoes

Documentarian Sara Dosa talks about famed volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, their search for meaning in nature, and how their tragic death was an extension of how they lived

There are conflicting stories about how Katia and Maurice Krafft first met. Maybe it was a random encounter while sitting on the same bench at the University of Strasbourg. Maybe it was on a blind date. Maybe they both went to see the same film by Haroun Tazieff, who was a famed volcanologist, a field for which Katia and Maurice both had a passion. Regardless, they hit it off, marrying in 1970, deciding not to have children and, instead, pursue their joint interest in studying volcanoes. These French scientists and lovers would spend the next two decades shooting films, taking photos and writing books, becoming celebrities and helping to raise volcanology’s profile in the process. And then on June 3, 1991, while charting an eruption at Japan’s Mt. Unzen, they were killed. Katia was 49, her husband was 45. Ironically, Maurice had once described how he hoped he would die: “I want it to be at the edge of a volcano.”

The new documentary Fire of Love, out now in theaters, chronicles the Kraffts’ brief lives, drawing extensively from footage the couple (and others) compiled during their explorations, providing viewers with a wealth of incredible images of volcanoes, both beautiful and terrifying. In the film, we learn that there are two kinds of volcanoes — red, which emit lava, and gray, which billow ash and have a potential to be far more lethal — and that, eventually, Katia and Maurice gravitated toward gray volcanoes. They wanted to understand if there were geological factors that could help predict when such deadly volcanoes would erupt — and, if so, how to prevent the needless deaths of those living nearby. Katia and Maurice were willing to risk their lives in that quest, getting as close to these powerful natural wonders as possible.

Director Sara Dosa was too young to have met the Kraffts, but she interviewed the late couple’s family and friends in order to get a larger sense of who they were. Fire of Love doesn’t include that material, however, instead letting the archival footage tell Katia and Maurice’s story, even if it’s understandably incomplete. (For one thing, we see much of their work life, but little of them back home in France.) Brief glimpses in television interviews illustrate how they wielded their notoriety to bring greater awareness to the environmental causes they cared about, and yet they still seem a bit at a remove. (As for which version of their first meetup is accurate, Fire of Love declines to provide an answer.) But what the documentary makes clear is that, for Katia and Maurice, their work was their life — and also that their love for one another was wrapped up in their mutual fascination with volcanoes. They put themselves in harm’s way, but always together — a tendency that confused or angered some of those around them, not that the Kraffts took such worries into consideration.

“They were absolutely cautioned to not pursue this work,” Dosa told me over Zoom this week, “but, of course, they also did have supporters who really championed what they did and were so inspired — they really saw the value and the courage it took to not just capture the imagery that was so valuable for the field of volcanology, but also the samples. They brought back gas samples, rock samples, detailed notes, all kinds of data.” She laughs, thinking about these lovebirds. “Maurice was the kind of person that if someone tells him no, that makes him want to say yes even more forcefully. It was especially in his character to just defy authority in a bombastic way, so I think that’s part of the propulsiveness of their life — that kind of renegade spirit.”

Narrated by filmmaker Miranda July, Fire of Love is a rumination and a celebration of two people who became soul mates, bonded by their shared love of the natural world and, also, their slight discomfort with conventional society. (Katia at one point is seen referencing others’ impression that she and her husband are “weirdos.”) The film doesn’t pretend to know everything about what made Katia and Maurice tick — it embraces the idea that people are basically a mystery — but during my conversation with Dosa, who won a Peabody for producing the 2016 documentary Audrie & Daisy, I couldn’t help but inquire more about their relationship’s inner workings. Dosa did her best to shed some light, and she also speculated on whether their tragic demise was inevitable — or if the Kraffts could have ever imagined growing old together. Plus, she has some thoughts on the sexism they had to confront in the scientific community — and why Maurice was a legitimate male ally long before the term existed. 

Many people seeing Fire of Love will go in knowing the outcome, which is that they died in a volcano blast. I imagine that some viewers will think, “Why would anyone do a job that dangerous?” While putting together the film, did you feel like you had to answer that question or explain their rationale?

For us as a filmmaking team, we wanted to prioritize how they lived rather than how they died. And so much of that was about reconciling their relationship to death. They both learned at a very early age that their lives could be lost in a moment, so that forced them to reckon with what was most meaningful to them — and that was their love of volcanoes and each other. 

We knew audiences would come to this knowing that they died, and that’s something we wanted to spell out early in the film — to just say, “They do die.” But we never tried to have judgment toward them as we were making the film. We tried to apply the same kind of curiosity toward them as they had toward volcanoes. So I never felt like we had to make an argument to the audience to say, “This is why.” It was rather, “Let’s dwell in their world and let you meet them and make a decision for yourself.”

You just mentioned that they learned these lessons about death at an early age: This comes up briefly in the film, but can you elaborate on that?

Katia was born during World War II, right on the French-German border — parts of Alsace were occupied at that time. And Maurice was born just one year after the war. They came of age during the Vietnam War and were absolutely devastated by the violence that they saw on television. So they understood the power and the danger that volcanoes possessed, but they were so drawn toward it — there was something just so utterly enchanting that being close to these erupting volcanoes was what brought them such meaning. 

They didn’t use religious language, but the way that I interpret some of their experiences are akin to how people describe the divine — once you see something so transcendent, you can’t go back — and that’s how they lived. Once they were met with this expansive, majestic wordless force, they had to live like that. Katia says this in the film: They can’t see the world anymore, its mediocrities. They knew how dangerous it was, but because they had those transcendental-type experiences, it really guided how they wanted to live.

Katia and Maurice Krafft

Fire of Love has a clip where Katia self-deprecatingly mentions that other people think they’re “weirdos.” But is that how they felt about themselves? 

Both of them, from early childhood, they marched to their own drummers. Katia as a kid, she did all kinds of things — she was quite rebellious. One story that didn’t make it into the film that I always loved was that, when she was a teenager, there was a carnival that came to the little village that she grew up in. There was one of those rides, it’s called the Wall of Death, where there’s this cylindrical tube and someone rides on a motorcycle, horizontally, going faster and faster and faster and tries to not fall off the motorcycle. Katia hopped on that motorcycle and she rode it successfully, and everyone was just shocked and impressed by this young girl doing this death-defying feat. There’s so many stories like that, just about their nature. 

We all know those couples where the two people could not have been with anyone else — if they hadn’t met, they would have been perfectly fine on their own, but it was such good fortune that they did find one another. Do you think that applies to Katia and Maurice? 

I feel like we could speculate for a very long time. There is something so beautiful and serendipitous that feels mythic to me about their meeting. They were so idiosyncratic and rebellious at such young ages — they did kind of live a weirdo lifestyle — but the way that they found each other, it’s like they brought out such an adventurous side [in each other]. They continued to egg each other on. They knew that so much more was possible because they had each other — they could live this exciting life, and they could support each other in that. They each possessed their own superpower, so to speak. When [they] come together, they had that feeling they could do anything. 

As a filmmaker, it’s such a gift to have a story that feels so faded, so mythic, but is so true. I have no idea what their lives would’ve been like if they hadn’t met each other, but I’m so grateful that they did.

This isn’t the central focus of the documentary, but you allude to the fact that their rise to stardom coincided with the rise of public interest in volcanology, which is a science I find fascinating. 

That was something that fascinated us, too, the fact that they were coming of age at the same time that this entire field was coming of age. My understanding is that volcanology was seen as the eccentric offshoot to geology and earth science — very adventurous scientists, who are often thought to have some sort of death wish, were the ones who went out to do that kind of courageous work on volcanoes. There was such little known [about volcanoes] — especially because eruptions are so fleeting, they happen in an instant. And it’s so difficult to study — no eruption is the same — so there was something truly revolutionary about being able to capture this fleeting phenomenon with the camera, being able to study it. 

Their cinematography to my mind is art, but it’s also data — it really is science. Their work contributed volumes to the field. But the other thing is that it inspired so many other people to go into volcanology, because others could see their imagery and became so enchanted by it. One of our editors, Jocelyn Chaput, her brother is a volcanologist, and Jocelyn remembers having Katia and Maurice’s books when they were kids growing up and just the power of those images. Jocelyn wonders if seeing those books is part of why her own brother went into volcanology. I know that’s very true for a lot of people who are in earth sciences today — they saw those images and thought, “Wow, I want to study that. I want to live somehow in relationship with this enchanting force as well.”

Because Katia and Maurice died the way they did, I wondered if it scared off people from pursuing volcanology. 

Katia and Maurice were absolutely unique in just how close they got [to volcanoes]. I definitely think that a lot of volcanologists don’t make those same choices — they still would want to study, but without going to the absolute lip of the crater. Katia and Maurice are a bit controversial — a lot of people do celebrate them as pioneers, but other people might say that crossing these safety barriers that they often did, or defying some of the rules of local authorities, was quite brash. That’s an active discussion in the field of volcanology, and people sit on different sides. 

But Katia and Maurice also occupied such a specific sliver of time in the field — now, there’s drone technology, there’s all kinds of remote-sensing work, so you can get up close without physically being up close. There’s a volcanologist friend of theirs who was saying the other day that he thinks that Maurice would’ve been obsessed with drones if he were still alive today. But there’s part of me that’s like, “He probably would, but I bet he would also still want to go up close.” 

There’s a sense in Fire of Love that both Katia and Maurice, despite being together, are profoundly lonely people. Maurice talks about learning to love humans by being close to volcanoes. Your last documentary, The Seer and the Unseen, was also about the connection between people and nature. You seem drawn to stories about people who don’t feel like they fit in with modern society.

I was very moved by how they talked about [their] disillusionment with the human world. Not necessarily that there’s something innately wrong with humans, but the political structures of the time that they were coming of age — and, one can certainly say, now as well. They were heartbroken by being caught up in this matrix of power that felt so destructive — and, in their words, vain and absurd. They saw humans as destroying what they created, whereas they took refuge in volcanoes — which, at first, they believed were such a force of creation. But, of course, they were [eventually] met with the destructive powers of volcanoes as well, which was also disillusioning to them and forced a reckoning in their own lives and work. 

But I think that push toward volcanoes — to seek out this beautiful creative force, against the destructive force of what they were met with in the “human world” — was very meaningful for them. For me as a filmmaker, I was very inspired by how they sought to live a life of meaning in relationship with nature, which was really their life’s work. 

So, yeah, I think that they’re fascinating guides for [living] that way — and the fact that they came around later in their life to reconcile, so to speak, a love [of] humanity. I never, ever thought that they lost a love for humanity — they never turned misanthropic. But meeting people who lived in relationship with volcanoes as well — whether it was other volcanologists, whether it was their local friends and guides or people who helped carry their gear, people who told them stories from their ancestors for many generations about what it’s like to live with volcanoes — it was volcano people that they really came to love and that served as a conduit to embracing humans once again.

We don’t see a lot of Katia and Maurice in their downtime, away from their work. What were they like as just a couple? What was the dynamic of their relationship? 

Oh, I’ve wondered about that so much, too. We did a ton of research, and still there’s so much more I wish I could have asked. But their friends and colleagues and family said they did have a volcanic relationship. There was always an underlying sense of love and care and admiration and respect. They knew that they truly did need each other to live this kind of life. Whatever disagreement came up, they would know that they would have to come back in sync in order to pursue their ultimate love, which are volcanoes. 

I heard some really beautiful stories about when they were at home in France, even though I really do believe they thought of their home as on a volcano. I heard wonderful stories of dinner parties of regaling their friends with stories from their adventures, being honest and upfront about the hard times, but their conversations and their life being one of joy and meaning. They didn’t shy away from conflict — they were both quite upfront and demanding with each other but, yeah, they did find ways to reconcile. And I think so much of that was because they did know what was most meaningful. 

They loved the writing of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince — his writing shows up a lot in their work. This quote didn’t show up, but I really love it: He talks about how the idea of love isn’t necessarily gazing straight into your lover’s eyes, but gazing out independently toward the same thing. I feel like that captures their relationships so perfectly — they knew how to look at the same thing together, and that was volcanoes and that caused them to be in sync. So the film really took on a love-triangle form, and it was because that gaze — that connected view of what was most important — was their volcano love.

Fire of Love suggests that, as they got more famous, they started playing versions of themselves in the public eye. But how close were those public selves to their actual selves?

I really do feel like they were just playing, like, crystallized versions of who they were. It never felt like they were donning an inauthentic mask, but they were aware that they were celebrities, and they knew that there was a utility to that. If people could connect with them as characters on screen, they could then in turn be a conduit for connecting people with volcanoes. Such an important goal of theirs was to get people to fall in love with volcanoes and to care about the Earth. 

Katia didn’t like to be on camera as much as Maurice, she much preferred being out in the field — of course, Maurice preferred that, too, but he was more comfortable being the spokesperson. But there’s a power to a love story — there’s a timeliness to a love story. By being themselves on camera and versions of themselves, they could almost map their own love for each other and volcanoes onto the public. They really had many, many fans — one of the things that’s been so gratifying now that the film’s coming out into the world is having so many people write to us saying, “I remember them on television as a kid in France!” They were very, very savvy storytellers in that regard.

In the press notes, you talk about the sexism of the era, how Maurice got more attention in the media than Katia did. Was that ever a conflict in their marriage?

It’s something that we talked a ton about in the edit room — there are clips of footage that we came across that were quite incredibly frustrating and sexist. One was of a variety show that they were on. The host says, “Welcome, everybody, please meet this great, legendary volcanologist — the greatest volcanologist in the world — Maurice Krafft! And his wife Katia.” It’s just so dismissive — you can see the muscles in her face just tighten. There are many examples like that — she’s much less represented in the visual record because of the sexism. She was really one of the only volcanologists who was a woman working at that time.

We had a scene in the film that really did deal with this, but it never quite worked. We started to ask ourselves, “What would Katia think about this? What would Katia want in this moment?” We came to the conclusion that she wouldn’t necessarily want that to be in the film — she would, instead, want to center her love for volcanoes, her contribution to the field, all that she accomplished. 

So we didn’t include that specifically infuriating clip in the movie, but some of the things that we did read and hear from people who worked with them is that Maurice would often correct people when they would discount Katia. He would champion her and say, “She’s seen 20 more eruptions than I have — she’s cheating on me with volcanoes.” He would make a joke and use humor to diffuse the sexist situations. Katia, of course, would speak up for herself, too, but oftentimes it was more difficult to do so. So that was something we really admired as a largely women-led film, just seeing an example of this quite bombastic, charismatic man making some space for his wife as well.

To your mind, was it inevitable that this was how they would meet their end? In a volcano blast?

Once they made the turn toward exploring gray volcanoes, I think that they knew if they were doing their job in the way that they wanted to do their job, then that’s how their lives would end. 

There’s a line in their obituary that we quote in the film where they say, “The risks always have to be calculated, but this kind of closeup study has to be done.” If you’re getting that close to such a deadly force, the chances are your lives will be taken by that deadly force. But they did know that doing so would bring them tremendous personal meaning, and also could have a powerful impact on how people understood volcanoes and thus hopefully save lives — which it, of course, did. 

There are some interviews we came across with Katia and Maurice where they said that they had bought land in Hawaii. They thought that perhaps if they did ever make it to old age, they would retire next to Mauna Loa or Kīlauea and get to forever just watch their beautiful volcanoes erupt. But there’s one interview in particular with Maurice where, the way he phrases that, it’s like you can hear [him] knowing that he’s not going to make it to old age. It wasn’t sad, though — I really believe that their daily lives were infused with such clarity of meaning and value. They really knew how they wanted to live their days and did so. 

Of course, I personally feel sad that they’re gone, and I know that all their loved ones feel sad that they’re gone. But I do feel like there’s such a beauty in knowing that they transitioned on in the way that they wanted to.

It’s been many years since they’ve died, and the film has this lyrical, poetic way of looking at their passing. But for their friends and family, I could imagine them thinking, “Well, yeah, that’s great, but I’m still angry at them for dying the way they did, that they weren’t more careful.” Did you encounter that when doing your interviews? 

I never encountered anger, but there’s still that ineffable “Why?” that you can detect sometimes behind the voices of those who grieve. I think that the people that we largely spoke with still very much miss them — and this is 31 years ago that they passed. 

One really beautiful thing is that one of our consultants on the film, a geologist named Leanne Wiberg who worked with them at the Smithsonian, she was saying that the process of consulting on our film and getting to see their images once again has helped her grieve and helped her get in touch with some of those memories. I hope that’ll be true for other people who know them. 

One of the very first things that Bertrand Krafft, Maurice’s older brother, told me in my very first phone call with him [was] “Maurice and Katia must not be forgotten.” And, of course, there’s still sadness behind his voice. But I’m so hopeful that their legacy will just continue to live and live and live. The fact that their imagery is now traveling the world, once again, after 30 years when it used to travel the world… I wouldn’t blame people if they were angry at them. But I hope that there can be a celebration and a connectedness to the kind of beautiful lives that they lived.