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Fire of Love Captures the Romantic Fire of Earth’s Interiority

An Inverted Mystery: Investigating Life Itself Instead of Lingering on its Demise

At its core, Fire of Love, a mesmeric new National Geographic documentary about Maurice and Katia Krafft’s lifelong fascination with volcanology, functions as a mystery story. But it’s not the mystery story one might immediately presume. Strangely enough, the film is fairly perfunctory when detailing the logistics of Katia and Maurice’s deaths. Their sudden demise on a remote peninsula in southeastern Japan in 1991 is recounted with uncommon neutrality and aplomb—a natural conclusion for two lives that literally spent every waking second playing with fire. Accordingly, their tragic end is somewhat anticlimactically retold in a matter-of-fact manner (even alluded to in the opening sequence without suspense or hesitation). The film, after all, is more concerned with examining the enigmatic multitudes within life itself.

Taking an affirmative perspective, Fire of Love’s priority is to investigate how its central volcanologist duo lived—celebrating their whimsical sensibilities and unorthodox life calling. Death thus becomes nothing more than life’s inevitable finale—the punctuation mark of an infernal existence. Life—and the vigorous spirit that fuels it—is where the true syntactical surprises reside.

If life is the space that warrants real detective work, the past itself becomes an endless question. Very early on, the ever quirky and whimsical Miranda July, serving as the doc’s playfully wistful narrator, ruminates on the alluring open-endedness of lost time:

Parts of Katia and Maurice’s story remain lost to time… As in love, there are mysteries. You fall hard for what you know, harder for what you don’t.

Due to the inscrutable margins of Maurice and Katia’s unknown/unrecorded identities, their volcano-obsessed romance turns into a magnetizing tale of surmises and probabilities. Like scientists studying a volcanic eruption, the filmmakers behind Fire of Love seem to understand their knowledge of Maurice and Katia (their central subjects) is limited and will always be. Nevertheless, this narrative constraint doesn’t stop them from exploring the sediment of the Kraffts’ volatile, fiery, and now bygone lives—sifting through autobiographical ash for underlying truths. And while they exhume magnificent glimpses into the Kraffts’ oversized passions and personalities, the grander picture remains, as it should be, permanently lost to time—gaseous, mutable, adrift.

A still shot form Fire of Love of a Katia wearing a silver protective suit while walking toward a lava flow.

The Murky, Prerecorded Origins of Love & Volcanology

Volcanoes become the loci, the hub, the molten core of the Kraffts’ love story. Containing hot magma and furious potentiality, volcanoes are naturally an object of immense mystique. Here, they become much more than tectonic coordinates, seismic polygraphs, or explosive craters. They serve as the metaphorical spark that lights our subjects’ lives aglow—captivating their lust, wonder, passion, and madness. They spur our oddball French duo to the ends of the earth. They represent the thumping pulse of the planet—the fiery, molten, romantic heartbeat of geologic flux. Like love, volcanoes are spectacularly alive, viscerally felt, and awe-inspiring. Yet, like a person, their exquisite mechanics and inner stirrings remain wildly elusive—perilously unpredictable.

Fittingly, Fire of Love starts from a space of similar uncertainty/unpredictability—admitting Katia and Maurice’s pre-documented selves and inner stirrings are proportionately elusive. Sadly, much of their initial courtship and budding amour (the very origins of their eccentric love story) has been nebulously lost to time — now susceptible to varied interpretations. The film doesn’t shy away from this equivocality. Adopting the scientific lens of skeptical curiosity, it contemplates a series of ludic hypotheses—spinning a docufictional story about the Kraffts’ early years by way of calculated conjecture.

In particular, the doc zeroes in on a few telltale relics: unearthing a wedding photo, honeymoon footage on Santorini, a newspaper clipping showing both in attendance at a 1960’s Parisian protest, etc. It also recounts their collegiate-aged bursts of political angst, teenage rebellions, boarding school sojourns, childhood fascinations, nuptials, and a series of university-sponsored trips to Mount Etna and Mount Stromboli where, apparently, Katia and Maurice formed an unbreakable connection before the fiery backdrop—inseparably bonding over the sublime & timeless grandeur of volcanology.

Volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft stare passionately in one another's eyes in Fire of Love.

A Triangulated Love Story: Maurice, Katia, & Volcanology

Like time, which is an involution of past/present/future, Fire of Love’s central romance is triangulated. In an online interview with Marya E. Gates, Sara Dosa (the doc’s director) discussed the difficulties of editing the vast backlog of Maurice Krafft’s awe-inspiring footage into a cohesive narrative.

During this arduous process, Dosa and her team intuitively decided to weld the disjointed and sprawling 250+ hours of source footage into a love story. The decision was tonally, metaphorically, and scientifically apt. Love is the perfect focal point. It is productively impassioned—a collision of intensities, a lava-saturated series of eruptions. Nonetheless, despite how perfect this analogy appeared in theory, Dosa found herself confronted by a glaring lacuna early in the editing process:

Missing from the archives was holding hands, kissing, shots of them even together. So we really were trying to get creative about what Maurice and Katia’s love language would be, to use a very contemporary term. And quite simply, it is volcanoes.

Utterly devoid of images showcasing PDA, the archival footage felt oddly platonic for a classical love story. Likewise, throughout the entirety of Fire of Love, we never observe the Kraffts’ kissing or hugging or swooning as normative married couples might. The most affection we get is a smirk, an adoring gaze, a playful inside joke. This textual constraint forced Dosa to redefine the language of their love. Volcanoes become the unifying symbol of their matrimony and union—the evergreen factor gluing their renegade/wanderlust souls together.

Instead of witnessing an insular human-to-human style of affection, we watch in awe as the Kraffts’ love is externalized: Displayed via their obsession with volcanology. We witness the Kraffts fervently trekking up calderas, descending into the gaseous craters, sidling the rim of gurgling volcanoes. We see them on a lifelong adventure—zealously capturing, studying, and playing on the precipice of perilous wonder. The spectacle of volcanic activity thus becomes their connective tissue/organ—metamorphosing onscreen into their coital conduit (the recipient of their sublimated gestures of tenderness, vim, and affection). Their shared will to understand this natural phenomena becomes their own idiosyncratic brand of eroticism: Their love language.

Maurice and Katia Krafft stand on a smoky mountainside in Fire of Love wearing puffy blue jackets.

The Existential Conflict Between Volcanic Time & Industrial Time

Like love, the overlapping scales and variances of time are also constantly in flux in Fire of Love. As Maurice Krafft reflects:

The human eye cannot see geologic time [and] and our lives are just a blink compared to the life of a volcano.

Commensurate to their massive physical size and power, volcanoes dwarf human existence on a temporal scale. They procreate over thousands of years—birthing in rare moments of earthen ejaculatory release. Spliced between these historically distant volcanic eruptions, the parade of human life ignites and extinguishes again and again like flashes in pan. Humanity’s short existential tenure is eclipsed by the endurance of the planet itself, and this incredible evanescence becomes a leitmotif of the movie.

With incredible pathos, the film accentuates the quotidian and hyper-localized context of human life by noting the clock on Maurice’s watch (which he wore the day Mount Unzen‘s infamous pyroclastic flow took Katia’s and his own life) was frozen in time—forever imprinted with a temporal snapshot of the instant tragedy struck. Sure, the watch may have continued to work after the pyroclastic flow incident. However, the dominant assumption is that Maurice’s watch specifies the precise moment the cloud of volcanic rock fragments, gas, and ash (fuming from Mount Unzen’s volcanic vent and cascading down the valley) overtook their bodies.

However poignant this temporal measurement may be, it also feels somewhat lacking — narratively unsatisfying, existentially uninteresting, and absurdly reductive. The filmmakers know this. They thus accentuate this detail to emphasize how inconsequential our metric scales of time are in the grand scheme of things. Maurice’s watch is used as a stark contrast to the prehistoric processes of volcanic time—processes as old as the earth itself.

To magnify the vast variances of time, the doc disdainfully brings up the industrial age invention of artificially-constructed, standardized time very explicitly just a few scenes prior—chronicling how rise of the railroad system denatured our seasonal, organic, cosmic notions of temporality. Manufactured dials on a clock—numerical placeholders—are ridiculed for being bereft of meaning. In an interview with Vox, Sarah Dosa elaborated in detail about her extensive research on the Krafft’s recurring railings against railroad time:

I learned about the hegemonic regime of time that we live under now. Standard time came from coordinating railways and merchant ships that were literally meant to make these violent colonial processes more efficient; the dominant understanding of time is guided by something so violent.

Stripping life of its rawer temporal dimensions (its natural rhythms, velocities, intensities, contractions, expansions), standardized time fails to pinpoint the infinite plenum and interconnected complexity of life in motion. It upends our organic existential/societal relationship to phenomena itself. Therefore, Maurice’s semi-official “time of death” becomes somewhat of a farcical data point: no more than trivia.

The real intrigue and curiosity of the movie is focused on the millions upon millions micro-movements (internally and externally, emotionally and pragmatically) that lured Maurice and Katia to be there—filming at that specific time, in that precise location:

For two million years of geologic time, the tectonic plates moved together to create this place. And two people were born there who loved the same thing…and they brought us closer to Earth.

A distant still shot of Maurice and Katia on the rim of an active, erupting volcano, taken from the film Fire of Love.

Science as Phenomenological Pursuit

By playing with transcendental notions of time, the film infuses its subjects with a mythic gravitas. Katia and Maurice’s steadfast dedication to capturing volcanic splendors mirrored their cinematographic will. It is clear  they were enraptured by the intertextual and intercontinental clashes between visual data, passion, and meaning. The proof is in the beauty of their footage. The shots of red and grey, strato and shield, cinder cone and dome volcanoes are all utterly sublime.

Like all great artists, Maurice and Katia captured time incarnate—in molten, igneous, volcanic motion. The immersive footage of lava spewing, gushing, and exploding is, strangely enough, the most sexualized the film becomes. Under their cinematic gaze, the terrain is transformed into a landscape of carnal tensions—suffused with orgasmic pressurization and explosive bursts, realized 24 frames per second.

We see lava rivers tunneling toward the sea. We see subaqueous eruptions solidify in real time. We see acidic waters incinerating plastic paraphernalia into gurgling gasses. We witness Maurice shoveling snow to drive over a tundra, paddling in an inflatable boat on the sulfuric waters of Indonesia’s Mount Ijen, and pining (via TV interviews) about riding a titanium alloy canoe down a flowing lava river into the sea.

These manifold moments all exhibit the multidimensional dynamics of time. They reify the notion that science isn’t hard fact. Far from fixed or stable, the laws and conditions of science subsist in experiential phenomena itself. It’s nothing more than an account of semi-predictable flow states. At its most rudimentary level, science is aspirational, perspectival, sensorial. It’s an artistic iteration, a cinematic splendor, an act of love—the will to study and document life’s capricious patterns.

In Fire of Life, we witness Maurice espousing his scientific agenda during a televised polemic against academic labels. Very clearly, the Kraffts’ were staunch advocates of empiricism. They sought to capture natural phenomena in its a posteriori state and to avoid the categorical impulse at all costs:

Academics want to classify everything. This is wrong. A true volcanologist will treat each volcano separately, as its own unique being with its own unique personality.

Fire of Love appropriates this approach by reflexively exploring Maurice and Katia’s monumental personalities, side by side, with an empirical bent. In an illustrious interlude, Miranda July’s narration outlines the Kraffts’ with lyrical descriptors. We learn each had their own way of filtering the world—Katia through still images/photography, Maurice through motion pictures. We learn Katia resembled a bird: lightweight, whimsical, inquisitive, obsessed with microcosmic intricacies of nature’s interconnectedness. Maurice, meanwhile, resembled a sea lion: singular, playful, formidable in stature, and forever chasing divine magnificence—the epic spectacle on a grandiose scale.

These labels are not centripetal—they are not meant to narrow or confine our subjects into concrete classifications. Instead, they work in a centrifugal manner, proliferating their personal attributes with elegiac approximations. They are poetic rhapsodies—futile yet valiant attempts to adumbrate the indeterminate characteristics of two unclassifiable beings.

Fire Of Love' showcases stylistic choices that resemble Wes Anderson's entire aesthetic. Here we see Katia and Maurice in small bubbles.

Liquifying the Differences Between Art & Documentation, Performance & Authenticity

Fire of Love is well aware that nothing is set in stone. To solidify this point, it recurrently challenges how accurate Katia and Maurice’s volcanologist public personae were to their quotidian, everyday selves. In one extended digression, the narration acknowledges that despite Maurice’s disavowal of being labeled as a filmmaker, he very much fit the bill—setting up cameras and manufacturing scenes for exaggerated, semiotic effect.

We are shown a montage of the Kraffts painstakingly crafting images/footage to filter and curate a narrative of heightened, quasi-fictional reality. We see Katia and Maurice staging shots, trying out myriad postures and angles, experimenting with zooms/lenses, and even, in one laughable vignette, filming indigenous men horseback riding on volcanic ash as if they were cosplaying cowboys in a classic Western.

Yet, we also get glimpses into Maurice’s persistent bitterness toward the mediocrity and drudgery of societal performativity. Maurice extends his angsty derision to ‘artistic life’—in the bourgeoisie sense of the role. His generalized disparagements of art and society are revealing in many ways—simultaneously self-deprecatory and misanthropic. In one interview, Maurice claims that sometimes he hopes being severed from humans most of the time will engender an inverse love for humanity. It’s not clear, however, whether or not Maurice ever overcame his latent misanthropy. But why would he? He was very much preoccupied by prehistoric epoch—occupying a different headspace than the average citizenry. He knew how to play his public bit to make money, but when pressed for answers, he echoed, time and time again, Nietzsche’s ridicule for human crowds, conformity, and rationality.

Maurice is later on record lamenting how economic necessity is the only reason he leaves his fieldwork behind to produce scholastic tutorial videos and TV specials. For Maurice, art appeared to be nothing but a vocational/fiscal responsibility—a way of funding his sole true love (exploring volcanoes). One gets the sense he doesn’t mind being out in the field and compiling footage. It’s the editorial phase he wants to skip.

Meanwhile, what Katia felt about the artistic/scientific side of their roles in volcanology is quite unknown. All one can say is that, on most fronts, she proudly claims to be willfully aligned with Maurice’s life trajectory (insofar as she admits to being content with the mortal dangers of following his intrepid lead). Whether Katia’s own philosophical perspective toward society, art, and conformity coincided with Maurice’s edgy antisocial leanings is ultimately unknown.

Whatever the case, the possible artificiality of the archival footage makes our read on Maurice and Katia even more dubious than before. It becomes impossible to truly parse moments where they are being au naturel vs. moments when they are putting up a pretense (“playing” their scientist/volcanologist roles as performative actors). To sustain their passionate hobby, they both seemingly pandered to the French middle-class/academic milieu—peddling their off-the-grid expeditions and infectious infatuation with volcanic activity to make ends meet. They travelled around selling a lifestyle, a product. What truly boiled inside is thus incapable of being confidently known or wholly induced.

Hawai'i filmmaker, Mike May, shot this photo of Fire of Love's Maurice Kraft on Kilauea in 1988. In this photo, Maurice sits on the edge of a volcano in his silver suit.

Amalgamating Art & Science: Alloyed Forces of the Human Spirit

What remains undeniable is Maurice and Katia’s mutual devotion to planetary phenomena—their love of the immediate dance of an active volcano—transcended all else. By the end of the film, their entire identities/selves, however, remain somewhat obfuscated—made ambiguous by the suspenseful interplay between performance and authenticity, private self and public self. We can’t truly know the degree to which their media cameos, TV appearances, and recorded interviews were genuine. Their higher, elevated selves—their “alternative stories”, as the narration coins it—are swallowed by time: Subsumed in each evaporated experience of volcanic ardor that kindled their entire, waking existence. And only fiction—framing and reframing splices of filmic residue anew — can track the sediment, catalog the ash, and speculate on the proclivities that once simmered inside.

Fire of Love is respectful toward the obscurities of lost time. But it also celebrates the Kraffts’ mythological legacy as a real phenomena, nonetheless. The film brilliantly acknowledges the fundamental similarities between science, art, and love—all are essentially creative impulses. Bound to time and energy, these forces are integrated, commingled, and congealed together. Knowledge, romance, and procreation enjoy parallel modes of passion: emergently desiring, sensually present, and plaintively nostalgic. We can only reproduce by reconsolidating and repurposing the alluvial deposits of the past—whether these deposits be recorded in metamorphic granularity, filmic archives, tender gestures, light banter, or written tidbits.

By mobilizing images, moods, memories, and imagination, Fire of Life asks many questions and offers few answers. This is science as it should be—ever curious, ever doubtful, and ever challenging the pedantic inertia of rock solid presuppositions. Science, like art, gropes in the dark—resurrecting stories/‘truths’ from the dormant fossils and scattered evidence of extinct life forces. Both methodologies are inherently fanciful and creative. Both are generative progenitors of life—in all its guises. Both are fertile, exploratory, and loyal to the underlying (e)motion of phenomena itself—whether still living and long perished. Seeking more than mere mathematical fragments or statistical models, both activities embody the movement of love: passionately excavating patterns, phases, sensations, and essences. Traversing well beyond the boundaries of reason, science and art dive into the eternally amorphous bedrock of time—hoping to miraculously recreate the cosmic spark of spontaneous combustion.

Fire of Love power couple Maurice and Katia Krafft sit side by side before a caldera spewing lava.

Written by Paul Keelan

Paul Keelan currently resides in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and cat. He has toured the continental US multiple times as a bassist playing rock jams, lived / traveled / taught abroad for over five years (primarily in Asia), and watched an unhealthy amount of movies.

When not writing about cinema for 25YL and Letterboxd, or working on his travel novels / novellas, he spends free time reenacting imaginary montage sequences as he records, edits, and cohosts the spectacular sports movie podcast Cinematic Underdogs.

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