Molten fields of lava and acid lakes have seldom been seen as the most romantic of settings.
However, for the protagonists of Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love, the grumbles of Earth’s most active volcanoes bound them together in the most unusual, yet epic love story to grace cinema screens this year.
Katia and Maurice Krafft were French volcanologists whose determination to study volcanoes took them to places that many scientists refused to go. Clad in sci-fi-looking protective suits and carrying 70s camera gear, they made it their mission to study the might of Earth’s volcanic activity and better understand the mysteries surrounding human relationships with these forces.
A horrible tragedy would eventually claim both their lives when they were caught in a pyroclastic flow on Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991. They left behind hundreds of hours of footage of them scaling active volcanoes across the world.
The volcanologists-turned-filmmakers adore each other, but what emerges from their archives is a passion for all things volcanic. This is a true love triangle - several volcanoes are even named in the credits.
Katia and Maurice’s legacy was captured on 16mm film, which was painstakingly restored and edited by Dosa to create this evocative documentary. Narrator Miranda July guides viewers through the story but the visuals are entirely made up of footage recorded by the Kraffts and their friends that sometimes has the air of magical realism. They evidently had a taste for the dramatic - seeing a tiny human figure calmly standing next to a molten inferno is surreal - but early on in the film Dosa notes inconsistencies in their story, suggesting a certain amount of myth-building on the part of the Kraffts.
We follow the couple to jaw-dropping fiery-red landscapes in hypnotising scenes where magma binds the story together. What’s interesting is that you don’t necessarily fall in love with the geologist (Maurice) and geochemist (Katia)’s bravery, though they certainly had a lot of that, nor their quite reasonable fear. Instead, it’s the childlike playfulness they share and embody; their delight in the thrilling power of their subject.
Vivid visuals of them dancing on the edge of a volcano, combined with entertaining remarks from Maurice saying they also often “erupt” in their relationship, lends a comedic edge. Even their outfits sometimes have a Wes Anderson feel. And yet, the couple’s curiosity about the world encourages us to be just as in awe of nature as them.
“We live by the rhythms of the Earth, and the Earth decides where we go next,” Maurice says at one point. What we’re left with is a tragic, cinematic, poetic smorgasbord that humbly reminds us of humanity’s delicate relationship with the world.
One burning question lingers and not even Dosa knows the answer. Knowing the danger of their work, were Katia and Maurice actually hoping that the hours of footage they captured, and their story, may one day be immortalised in a film? The answer to this was lost to Mount Unzen 31 years ago.