Sometimes nothing is as rewarding to watch as an obsession movie that inspires you to share the obsession. “Fire of Love,” one of the films opening the Sundance Film Festival tonight, is a documentary about a modest French couple, Maurice and Katia Krafft, who became the world’s most ardent volcanologists. Beginning in 1966, when they met, and over the next 25 years, the two traveled to as many active volcanoes as they could find, from Zaire to Colombia to Iceland, America and Japan – and when I say active, I don’t mean billowing smoke from the crater. The Kraffts have approached as close as possible to the danger and the spectacle of these seismic tectonic eruptions coming from the depths of the earth. They stood right next to glistening lava rivers, massive showers of hot rock and recorded it all, leaving a film and photographic record of volcanic activity that remains unparalleled.
Seeing these images is a big part of what makes “Fire of Love” such a spellbinding experience. Yet the film also tells the gripping story of two unlikely lives. The Kraffts, who were born 40 kilometers apart in Alsace, north-eastern France (the fact that the region has shifted, over the centuries, between French and German control is part of what lends him a distinctive spirit), were the craft version of daredevil soulmates, addicted to awe and united in their fixation. The film suggests that they loved each other, in part, through their love of volcanoes. And why not? “Fire of Love,” which was directed by Sara Dosa with discursive, let’s try it lyricism, feels like one of Werner Herzog’s documentaries about fearless outliers, only this one is touched with romance. (In fact, the Kraffts were featured in Herzog’s “Into the Inferno,” a much less incendiary film about the love of volcanoes.)
Were the Kraffts scientists? She was a geochemist, he was a geologist, and they became world experts in the field, but they weren’t academics, and they weren’t researchers who brought their specimens back to the lab to study. Experience be therejust on the edge of the convulsions of the earth, has been their find. They looked a lot like storm chasers, and maybe vertical climbers, with more than a touch of Jacques Cousteau in their pioneering desire to film what they saw and make it known to the world. (They have featured their findings in books and documentaries.)
Through it all, their connection to erupting volcanoes was mystical and primitive, steeped in childlike wonder. They wanted to touch the strange, and they did; the volcanoes were their life force. “Once you see an eruption,” says Katia, “you can’t live without it.” Dosa has had access to their massive archive of volcano images, and they contain some of the most stunning, terrifying and beautiful images of nature ever recorded. The close-ups of spewing lava are like moving Jackson Pollock paintings. The tributaries of molten lava, with a crust on top that it simultaneously melts, look like a biblical hell. The oozing chunks of black rock look like something out of “The Blob”. The Kraffts, in their own way, were true filmmakers. When you see a photo of one of them in protective gear, silhouetted by a curtain of red-orange liquid firing, it’s pure science fiction.
Do the Kraffts present themselves as… you know, characters? Yes and no. They are attractive and charismatic, but in a strangely normal way, like a couple who have spent their lives running a cheese dairy in Alsace. Maurice is a brilliantly bearish man with curly brown hair who looks like a smarter John Laroquette; Katia, with short hair and glasses and a lively smile, suggests a pixie version of Terry Gross. They wore their obsession on their sleeves, but they’re unassuming, middle-class winners about it. You would never look at them thinking, “Yeah, those two were religious about going to the ends of the earth to watch volcanoes spit.”
The film’s narration, which is read in spun tones of seductive curiosity by Miranda July, says at one point that “Katia and Maurice were into volcanology because they were disappointed in humanity.” They had grown up in the rubble of post-war France, but the protest fervor of the 1960s had not spurred them on; it alienated them. And at the start of the film, we learn something about them that takes our breath away. Miranda July says: “It is 1991. June 2. Tomorrow will be their last day. The two head to another lookout volcano (Mount Unzen in Japan), and what we’re told is clear: it was the one that killed them. This incredibly disturbing fact sets the stakes for the entire film. Maurice and Katia always knew they were risking their lives. During a first foray, the skin of Maurice’s leg was burned by mud at 140 degrees – a baptism of fire. But from the start, their mantra was (in Katia’s words): “Curiosity is stronger than fear”.
One of the reasons Maurice and Katia were not conventional scientists is that they rejected the scientific community’s careful classification system for volcanoes. Their take was: Every volcano is unique. But they had their own classification system. For them, there were two kinds of volcanoes: red and gray. The red ones are the ones that spit lava rains and look dangerous. The gray kind is the kind that spits impossibly gigantic clouds of smoke (like the famous images of Mount St. Helens), one of which we see literally looks like an atomic bomb cloud. Smoke volcanoes may seem less dangerous than liquid fire volcanoes, but, in fact, they are much more dangerous. And the Kraffts, over time, went from looking for red to gray. We hear deadly stories of what gray volcanoes can do, with smoke erupting like an avalanche, often spreading far beyond the area it was predicted to reach. And that’s what happened at Mount Unzen. Maurice and Katia were several kilometers from the volcano, but it wasn’t far enough. It swallowed them up. But “Fire of Love” is a movie powerful enough to convince you that they died happy.