“An intriguing mosaic of the Kraffts’ achievements and the journey of their shared lives.”
by Ken Bakely
Out of the many questions that Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love asks, it makes sure to never just ask why it all turned out like this. There is too much here to reduce in such a way. We are following, through extraordinary archival footage, the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, French volcanologists who married in 1970, and spent the next 21 years documenting and studying volcanoes from up close, until they became two of the 43 casualties in the 1991 eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan. They were right there, in the thick of it, amid the fire and the ash and the smoke, and they quite literally gave their lives for this. And so, Dosa understands that merely wondering why they chose this specific life – or even this specific way of realizing their interest – is simply not a very interesting question in the grand scheme of things. For them, it was just what they did; what motivated them separately and together. We can only take in what we’re seeing and try to evaluate it from there. There is no expectation we will feel as if we have succeeded. This is a fascinating documentary simply based on the footage we’re shown, as the Kraffts show us the extraordinary might and destructive power of the volcanoes, in film that has been expertly restored and presented here. But piecing it all together from the immense array of available material, Dosa gives even brighter vibrancy and life to it all. She crafts an intriguing mosaic of the Kraffts’ achievements and the journey of their shared lives, depicting a relationship forged in some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes as it hurtled to its tragic conclusion.
More than anything else, to tell the story of the Kraffts is to tell the story of two people who were astonishingly passionate. They were defined and consumed by passion, comprising the science that guided them and the love that drove them. And they had a deeply grounded understanding of what they wanted to accomplish, and what it could – and did – ultimately cost them. They wrote books and appeared on television, discussing their findings and always seeking more knowledge that they could ascertain and then share. They were, ultimately, in profound recognition of the extraordinary and destructive power of this slice of nature, and found their life’s mission in proactive education and public awareness. Fire of Love presents their pathbreaking achievements through a variety of restored as well as new media – there are no talking heads, but there are animated explanations of scientific concepts work alongside the original footage to tell the story, as if to communicate that what they were doing was so multipolar that it cannot be contained within a single medium. From minute one, Dosa dispenses with the notion that a film could intrinsically enhance or impress as much as the mere facts of what we’re seeing and learning. She lets clips from interviews with the Kraffts play out with the same astonished attention as footage of a glowing lava flow.
That is the critical, and ultimately delicate, balance that Fire of Love seeks, and largely achieves. It is about the intimately personal and the immensely empirical, compared and contrasted with real intuition. There is considerable effort required to assemble and structure this remarkable collection of film, but it cannot seem consciously constructed, lest it get in the way of this illusory approach. The one bit of deliberate wrangling and plotting that the documentary does engage in comes form of a narration, read by Miranda July; not a recounting of events as much as it is a quasi-poetic attempt to process what the viewer is seeing, and recite some of the pondering observations that naturally come as a result. It’s an admirable effort, yet perhaps one that shows just how precise Dosa must be. Co-writing the script, she recognizes that a play-by-play would be obvious to the point of being extraneous, and so she gives July something more akin to color commentary. But after a point, even that causes some unwanted friction. A question returns, again and again – what can possibly be added to this? The film has been so meticulously put together already that nothing else can be said. There are overwhelming images and extraordinary emotions; there is revelatory science and profound devotion. This is a remarkable and deeply human story against the backdrop of breathtaking and frightening nature. Our path through it can be guided, but it can’t really be elaborated upon.