Maurice and Katia Krafft were not just two of the world’s most notable volcanologists — they were also two of the greatest filmmakers, who ventured into dangerous volcanic locations to capture images of some of the planet’s most beautiful and beguiling forms of nature. After their death during the June 3, 1991, eruption on Japan’s Mount Unzen, they left behind an incredible archive of footage that displayed not only the unpredictable nature of volcanoes, but also what it means to be a human in a chaotic world.
The duo is the subject of Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love, which traces an engaging love story between the Kraffts and their shared obsession. The director spoke to THR about assembling a narrative out of the Kraffts’ films and presenting the husband-and-wife partnership onscreen.
How did you first encounter the Kraffts and their work?
My last film, The Seer and the Unseen, was about an Icelandic woman who is in communication with spirits of nature. We really wanted to open that film with images of erupting volcanoes in Iceland; a key theme was showing forces of creation and destruction in the mystery and magic of Icelandic nature. We thought that archival imagery could especially give an otherworldly, out-of-time quality. And that’s how we came to Katia and Maurice — not many people had done what they did. Only once we learned about them as people [did we realize] that they were silly, playful and so philosophical. They were scientists and artists, really, even though they didn’t call themselves [the latter].
How did you access their archive?
The archive changed hands many times over the years, but it was largely stewarded by Maurice’s older brother, Bertrand Krafft. He has entrusted the archive to various archival houses as well. When we came to the project, the archive was residing in a facility called Image’Est, based in Nancy, France. They absolutely loved the Kraffts and took incredible care of the footage. This was during the early months of the pandemic, so we couldn’t go to France to look through the reels themselves, which was my absolute dream. They sent us batches of [digitally scanned footage], about 20 hours at a time. We also diligently searched the public record for any other clips of Katia and Maurice; they showed up a lot on TV. They certainly left a visual footprint.
What was the condition of the footage?
The first 16-millimeter footage that Katia shot, what was left that we were able to work with, wasn’t in good quality. We really wanted to honor the fidelity of the material, so we didn’t do a lot of cleanup. We actually really loved the fact that we could see certain particles of dust — so much of Fire of Love is about what it means to capture incidents when your life could be over at any second, or seeing the immortality of geologic time embodied in the life span of a volcano. We felt like all those things were speaking to us through the celluloid.
They were not shooting in ideal filming conditions. But do you think they thought about the longevity of their footage, especially since film at that time felt a little more ephemeral than it does now?
We always wondered if they were putting themselves on camera as a way to describe themselves in their own [terms]. They really understood themselves as mythic characters, not in a way that’s inauthentic at all. That’s really who they were. But they were also performing as themselves on camera for their public. There was a sense of authorship of their own images that elicited questions from the edit team — wondering [if their footage] was somehow instructions for the future, knowing that dying in a volcanic eruption was likely, doing that kind of work.
How did you assemble a narrative out of so much archival material?
We were really inspired by a sentence in a book that Maurice wrote: “For me, Katia and volcanoes — it is a love story.” It was really a genesis point. Maurice gave us a thesis for their life. It wasn’t just a love between him and Katia, it was a love between these three entities — a love triangle. That helped us sculpt a narrative where these three characters were in tension with each other. That also helped us to embrace the French New Wave influences that show up in Katia and Maurice’s own work. Maurice’s cinematography, for example, has these really fun, fast zooms, which are so iconic of those times. And love triangles are at the heart of so many great French movies. (Laughs.) What was happening culturally at that time shaped how we approached the material, not just as narrative art but also the aesthetic grammar of the film. A lot of things come forth when you make a film about loving something that can kill you — a lot of questions about meaning and existentialism.
There are no talking heads in the film. Were you in touch with people who knew the Kraffts to get their sense of who they were?
We tracked down a number of their collaborators. They shared stories that blew our minds. There were discrepancies between various accounts, and at first [that] was frustrating. We didn’t want to necessarily choose the thing that served our story best; rather, we were interested in the murkiness. When someone lives their life so large, it becomes in the realm of public interpretation. These were people who did know them and loved them, and they had their own versions of what felt true. That shows up in the film, when we talk about the three different ways they may have met. That process of researching and speaking to loved ones brought a lot more depth, especially with regard to the relationship dynamics — and also elicited so many more questions that we could never have answered.
They seemed to be equal partners in both their personal and working relationships. But professionally, were they respected equally?
Katia and Maurice were absolutely on equal footing. Maurice had this charmingly belligerent personality where he would challenge all things, including Katia — but then Katia would challenge him right back. A lot of their collaborators would say that Maurice listened to Katia, and often Katia was the only person who could cause him to back down.
Of course, Katia encountered phenomenal sexism. Being a woman in science at that time, it was important for her to be seen as a volcanologist, not pigeonholed as a woman volcanologist. We encountered footage that illustrated that painfully. There’s one especially memorable moment on a French talk show where the host says, “We have with us today world-famous volcanologist and adventurer Maurice Krafft … and his wife, Katia.” She actually saw more erupting volcanoes than Maurice, and he would often correct that. But [in that clip], you could see her jaw tightening. We really toyed with putting that in the film, but we wanted to respect how Katia viewed herself. Katia shows up in the visual record way less than Maurice, [as a result of] the sexism [at the time] and also because he liked to be in front of a camera and she didn’t. Despite there being less footage of Katia than the audio record, we brought in her writing to give her equal presence.
How did you decide on Miranda July as the film’s narrator?
Miranda is one of my absolute favorite artists. She’s been such a force of inspiration. The voice of the narrator that we were developing — we called it a “deadpan, curious voice.” We thought Miranda would capture deadpan and curious very well, and bring her own sense of yearning. She so intimately and beautifully marvels at how strange it is, how extraordinary it is to be alive, and she brought all that complexity into her performance. She took what I wrote and made it her own in a way that felt like the right kind of texture for our film.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.