Katia Krafft wearing aluminized suit standing near lava burst at Krafla Volcano, Iceland. (Credit: Image'Est)

Fire of Love: a story of science and romance

22 min


Unseen footage of ground breaking volcanology couple now on the big screen 

They met on a blind date. They had one thing in common: volcanoes. Katia and Maurice Krafft fell in love and spent two decades roaming the planet, chasing eruptions and documenting their discoveries.

Sadly, the French couple lost their lives during a volcanic explosion in 1991. They left behind a legacy which continues to enrich our knowledge of the natural world. 

Director Sara Dosa draws upon the Kraffts incredible archive to celebrate the intrepid scientists’ spirit of adventure. 

Fire of Love (PG) runs for just over 90 minutes and tells a story of primordial creation and destruction through the eyes of the two bold explorers as they venture into the unknown – and all for the sake of love.

Sara is an Indie Spirit Award-nominated documentary director and Peabody award-winning producer whose interests lay in telling unexpected character-driven stories about ecology, economy and community. 

‘The Last Season’ was her first feature as a director and it went on to win a Golden Gate Award at its SFIFF 2014 premiere. It was nominated for the Indie Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award. 

She co-directed an Emmy-nominated episode of the Netflix music series ‘Re-Mastered.’ Her third feature as a director was ‘The Seer & The Unseen’ which premiered in 2019 and won awards at a number of festivals. 

As a producer, she produced the Peabody-winning ‘Audrie & Daisy’ (2016 Sundance / Netflix Originals) and the Peabody and Emmy-nominated ‘Survivors’ (2018 IDFA / POV). 

She further co-produced the Academy Award-nominated ‘The Edge of Democracy’ (2019 Sundance / Netflix Originals) and ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ (2017 Sundance / Paramount). 

She graduated from Wesleyan University and holds a Masters in Anthropology and International Development Economics from the London School of Economics.

Photography credit: Erik Tanner / Contour by Getty Images. Image kindly supplied by WDW Entertainment.

A Q&A session with film director Sara Dosa

What was your familiarity with the work of Maurice and Katia Krafft before making this film, and what was the genesis of the project?

‘I came to Katia and Maurice through research on the last film I directed, “The Seer and the Unseen,” which is a magical-realist documentary about an Icelandic woman who can see and speak with spirits of nature.’

‘The film starts with a myth about the founding of Iceland and the pact the settlers made with the spirits of nature in order to live there.’ 

‘I imagined an opening with beautiful archival volcanic imagery, and once we started searching for the footage, we, of course, found our way to the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft.’ 

‘As I learned about them, I became completely hooked on the nature of their relationship. It wasn’t just Maurice and Katia in a relationship; it was almost a love triangle between the two of them and the volcanoes.’ 

‘There is no Maurice and Katia without volcanoes. That set me on a path of inquiry about so many things: the human relationship with nature and the sentience of nature, creation, destruction, love, life and meaning.’

What was the process of obtaining access to the Kraffts’ film archive?

‘They were celebrities of their time, especially in France, so they were well documented and intentional in creating their public image — which was something we had fun playing with in the film.’ 

‘Footage taken by others wasn’t terribly hard to come by because it exists on a lot of the European public archives, even though there were very few recordings of the two of them together.’ 

‘However, Katia and Maurice’s own archive changed hands through the years, and It took us a while to find out where the footage was. We found it in the care of Image’Est, an archival house in Nancy, France.’ 

‘Maurice’s brother Bertrand had entrusted the archive to them and approved our access to the archive, as well.’ 

‘I had the pleasure of meeting with Image’Est in France and sensed how zealously they guarded the richness of this material and how much they cared about Maurice and Katia’s story.’

‘Our producer Ina [Fichman] developed a wonderful relationship with them and was able to negotiate access to that entire archive.’ 

‘Once we had that deal in place, they got to work and digitized a huge portion of the footage for the first time ever and started sending batches to us. This was during COVID, so I was locked down in my house but would get this footage and be completely transported to Iceland 1973 or Indonesia 1979.’ 

‘I felt like I got to travel through their imagery. We feel so lucky that we have gotten to compose a whole film largely from that material.’

‘Most of the footage we ended up using hadn’t been seen in nearly 30 years and was newly digitised for the first time.’ 

Do you know what camera technology the Kraffts used? How did they get the camera so close to the volcanoes?

‘The footage is from 16mm cameras, and Katia often shot with a still camera as well.’ 

‘My understanding is that it was a little easier for Katia to get closer with her still camera, and they had all kinds of ways of protecting their gear.’ 

‘One of our most iconic shots is of Katia right at the edge of a crater where she was measuring temperature, and it was 1200 degrees Celsius.’ 

‘They would insulate their gear with aluminium and asbestos; they didn’t have drones or anything like that and would try to get as creative as possible to get the shots.’ 

‘There are certainly stories of gear melting, and they also had a number of friends and porters who helped carry it with them.’ 

‘There was one story about how on a trip to Goma in the Congo, in what was then Zaire, an entire village showed up wanting to go on the adventure with Katia and Maurice Krafft and helped them carry their gear.’ 

‘They definitely weren’t alone in this technological project of maintaining their gear.’

What state was the footage in when you received it?

‘There were 20 or 30 hours that had been scanned to DigiBeta previously, but most of it remained in 16mm reels. Image’Est beautifully and painstakingly scanned 200 hours’ worth and did a gorgeous job.’ 

‘One of the cool things is that Maurice and Katia had treated some of the footage themselves.’ 

‘We were working with the colour treatment they laid on originally for their own films. That became part of the aesthetic we embraced in our final colour session: to respect how they saw their own footage and incorporate that into the texture and collage feel of our film.’

Why did you decide to make this a primarily archival doc and not use contemporary interviews? 

‘There were a lot of challenges with just using their archival material, but those challenges allowed us to develop some of the more playful and interpretive aesthetics in the film.’ 

‘I was fascinated by the idea of trying to listen to the story of people who had passed away, told through what they have left behind—not just the materiality, but the questions that are left open.’ 

‘I loved the challenge of trying to listen to protagonists through their own words rather than imposing judgment or hindsight. This is why we chose not to include any new talking heads.’ 

‘We also wanted to maintain the present tense as much as we could. If we had people commenting on the past, it would have disrupted this perspective.’

‘We conducted a number of interviews and did a lot of research speaking to loved ones, including Maurice’s brother Bertrand and sister-in-law Elisabeth, and collaborators of the Kraffts to make sure our story is accurate.’ 

‘There were interesting discrepancies in the various stories we heard, which was initially confusing but became something we embraced and disclosed early on in the film.’ 

‘We began to understand as part of the process of not just generational storytelling but of mythmaking. We see Katia and Maurice as these mythic figures. Their stories are, of course, born out of true lived experiences, as well as the memories and interpretations of their lives from those who knew them and those who knew of them.’

Can you elaborate on what those challenges were, and if there were any guiding principles you kept in mind along the way?

‘First of all, the 16mm footage didn’t have any sound. Since one of them was always behind the camera, there is very little of Maurice and Katia interacting with each other, so we had to figure out how we were actually going to tell a love story.’ 

‘There is no footage of them kissing or holding hands, but that led us to think creatively and see how their shared true love was volcanoes; they loved each other but also worked together to be with their third love.’ 

‘One of the things I personally enjoyed figuring out most with Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, my two fantastic editors, was how to create love imagery from volcanic imagery.’ 

‘We have some scenes that feel explosive and speak to the passion and ecstatic fullness of one’s heart. We have one scene that’s a bit erotic, subtly and playfully. And of course, we have dangerous and foreboding scenes that we thought spoke to the risks that one takes when you fall in love.’ 

‘Volcanoes became our language of telling a love story, and we thought that was truer to Katia and Maurice’s story than if you ever actually saw them kiss.’

‘Another challenge was that Maurice had far more audio recordings than Katia. This was in part due to the sexism of the era and in part because of how the Kraffts divided up their own time.’ (Maurice chose to do more media appearances.) 

‘However, Katia authored many of the couples’ books and often wrote in the first person. We decided to take these first-person writings and have an actor voice them as a means to give greater depth to Katia’s perspective.’ 

‘These instances are italicized in our subtitles and prefaced by our narrator saying, “Katia would later write” to clarify these moments from Katia’s actual audio recordings.’ 

‘There are a handful of instances, too, where we do the same thing with Maurice’s writing, though there are fewer from him than Katia.’

‘Lastly, the frame of a love story was a guiding principle for us. This meant that we tightly crafted our narrative around Katia and Maurice’s relationship with each other and volcanoes.’ 

‘This was also a challenge as there is such a wide world of volcanology, other volcanologists, as well as generational and cultural knowledge about volcanoes that, of course, influenced their work but was not the focus of the film.’ 

‘We hope to foster meaningful and expansive conversations around this as we release the film into the world.’

What was the process of crafting the film’s narration, and how did Miranda July become involved?

‘As I mentioned, there were a lot of limitations to the archives. Aside from the 16mm footage not having sync sound, the recorded interviews had significant limitations too.’ 

‘For example, many of them were abruptly edited or had embedded music that we could not cleanly cut around, leaving little wiggle room for our own editorial process.’ ‘And very few of their media appearances went deeper into the Kraffts’ lives and opinions outside of their scientific reports.’ 

‘As such, we needed a creative vehicle through which the narrative could take shape, as well as flesh out Katia’s and Maurice’s emotions to the best of our ability.’ 

‘This was especially important for our depiction of Katia, who was featured far less in media appearances. Narration became our solution for the vehicle that could provide this context, filling in the narrative gaps and speaking to our characters’ internal worlds.’

‘Crafting the narration was very much a four-person job: me, editors Erin and Jocelyne, and Shane Boris, one of our producers.’ 

‘As soon as we started writing, we realized that an inquisitive, deadpan curious voice would be ideal instead of an omniscient “voice of God” narrator—which is how a lot of narration historically has functioned in many conventional documentaries.’ 

‘We wanted our narrator to provoke, ask questions, and speak to the gaps in the archive and wonder about the mysteries of all that we could never know.’ 

‘The theme of the unknown is such a big one in our film. We try to draw connections between the mystery of love, the mystery of volcanoes, and the mysteries of the archive. To make sense of the materials left behind from those who have already passed.’

‘We began writing the narration before Miranda came on board. I’ve loved Miranda’s work ever since I saw “Me and You and Everyone We Know” over 15 years ago, and I have read everything she has written and seen everything she has made.’ 

‘Our executive producer Greg Boustead mentioned her, and we all felt immediately like, of course. We felt like we had somehow been writing for her without even realizing it; it was one of those wonderfully serendipitous moments.’ 

‘She is so inquisitive and brings a deep, personal intimacy to the grandiose and profound. Her voice and performance as an actor and the brilliant writer that she is fit so well with the spirit of the narrator we were always hoping for.’ 

‘She was able to deliver such depth, richness, curiosity and longing in her voice during the recording process but in a subtle way. Her participation in the film has been an incredible gift.’

Was there any new original footage that appears in the film?

‘Yes. There are a handful of shots where brilliant cinematographer Pablo Alvarez-Mesa shot new images to include into the collage of our film.’ 

‘For example, in the scene where Maurice and Katia meet, we explain that the visual record of their budding romance is sparse. We have no footage of their first date, for example.’ 

‘We tell this story through archival newsreels from 1960s Strasbourg as well as newly shot images of espresso cups with increasingly less espresso in them to indicate a passage of time.’ 

‘There are also a handful of B-roll shots in the scene at Katia and Maurice’s home that we shot ourselves since, interestingly enough, Katia and Maurice were not interested in filming domestic life, only that of volcanoes.’

Can you tell me about some of the inspirations behind the film?

‘We were inspired to tell this quintessentially French story by watching a bunch of French new wave films, as they formed the cultural backdrop of Katia’s and Maurice’s early adulthood and are reflected in their work.’ 

‘Cinematically, in Maurice and Katia’s footage, there were wonderfully playful zooms that are very stylized and that you see in a lot of French new wave films.’ 

‘Their writing was rich and playful, and it reminded me of Truffaut’s narration. Also, French new wave films helped to inform two key themes: that of the love triangle as well as existentialism. Additionally, it helped us shape our approach to narration.’ 

‘The narration in “Sans Soleil” remains one of the most gorgeous things I have heard.’

‘The tone of our narrator is very different from that, but a lot of the themes about time, space, meaning, longing and relationships that come from the narrator were in our minds, hearts and ears.’

‘The associative nature of a lot of French new wave editing was also super important to us, especially as we were trying to make sense of the archive.’ 

‘For example, on one reel, we would have a shot of an iguana, and then a shot of a volcano, and then Katia on an inner tube, and then three more shots of volcanoes.’ 

‘How do we make sense of this? Using the lens of association that was part of that style really helped tip the eye to our own editing—the freedom to put an elephant seal with a bird.’ 

I’m curious how the Kraffts fit into the scientific discourse of then and now. As the film shows, they were important as public figures and popularisers of knowledge, but how much were they participating in the process of scientific discovery through publication or shared knowledge amongst their peers?

‘They very much saw themselves as field volcanologists, some of the very few who were going to active volcanoes.’ 

‘Since they dared to go closer than pretty much any volcanologists had before, they were able to bring back samples that no one had ever seen.’ 

‘The chemical data, geological data and their notes and footage were data gold for scientists who were so hungry to make sense of the mysteries of volcanoes.’ 

‘They published too but were well-known as scientists who could bring back that richness of observation and materials.’

‘They were also controversial in many ways. For example, they would go past safety zones all the time.’ 

‘Some people thought it was amazing what they would do in the name of science, and other people said that they were setting dangerous precedents.’ 

‘In the film, Katia says that their colleagues see them as “weirdos.” But they liked that; they very much embraced the idiosyncratic nature of their niche in the field.’

‘As they continued to evolve, they started to see themselves more as filmmakers and photographers, even though it was all in the name of scientific inquiry.’ 

‘To this day, people see them as pioneers in the field of volcanology. Some people remain critical of them for their bold antics, which often defied safety regulations set by authorities.’ 

‘But, the work that they did isn’t done anymore and hasn’t been for a long time, partially due to drone technology and remote sensing devices. They occupy a really interesting sliver of time between “had never been done before” and “will never be done again.”’

Did you work with any science advisors to help you understand the technical nature of their work?

‘Yes, absolutely. Clive Oppenheimer, a wonderful, world-famous volcanologist and in three of Werner Herzog’s films, was an advisor.’ 

‘We first met Clive at a workshop that our executive producers at Sandbox Films put on three years ago.’ 

‘We became fast friends, and he gave us his notes and insights into the film, as well as doing a thorough scientific review of the film and was a sounding board throughout the process.’ 

‘He had even met Maurice, so he shed some light on that. We also had another scientific review by Rebecca Williams. She had wonderful notes for us with incredible detail. We are grateful to have them signing off and approving.’

You point out in the film the Kraffts’ self-awareness, and the extent to which they “play” themselves as “wandering volcanologists.” Did they intend for all of their films to be seen by the public?

‘I think they intended what they edited together to be seen by the public. They had quite a fanbase, they went on worldwide lecture tours, so it wasn’t just the scientific community (who was their audience).’ 

‘But there is so much in the footage that I can’t imagine they intended for the public—moments of beauty that have nothing to do with volcanoes, little moments of life, playing with each other, testing things out. There are two minutes of a Komodo dragon eating a dead animal.’ 

‘That shows me their perspective even though that never ended up in any of their films. There are beautiful moments of Katia looking up at the sun. It shows me what they wanted to put their attention on, and it is those kinds of discoveries that, for us, brought so much life and love into the film.’

‘One day, we came across the footage that had many takes of cowboys throwing their hats in the air, riding their horses off into the sunset.’ 

‘I had no idea what it was for since there was no sound! But, I could so clearly imagine Maurice behind the camera yelling “action!”’ 

‘We included this moment in the film (with Ennio Morricone’s iconic score) to wonder about the moments that they filmed that clearly seemed just to be recorded for fun rather than public viewing.’

‘Whenever they would record themselves, there was some sense I had that they were setting their image into immortality because any moment could be their last, and they knew that. I felt that they were writing their own myth, something that transcended time.’

‘They were obviously people who lived close to death, and in so doing were larger than life. Seeing their red hats, I couldn’t help thinking of Jacques Cousteau?’

‘I don’t know about their specific relationship with Jacques Cousteau; I’m sure there has to be one. There was absolutely that cultural moment happening in France and around the world about adventure and travel tourism.’ 

‘Air travel was becoming popularized. You also can’t ignore that there is such a powerful privilege that they had as white Europeans to travel around the world.’ 

‘This was a time when a lot of countries were in the throes of resistance movements against colonial powers. It should be acknowledged that this wave of adventure is entangled with these colonial impulses of world exploration.’

‘There was also an aesthetic moment of science fiction happening in that era. You see that with Cousteau and his deep-sea diver outfits, and the same with Maurice and Katia with their volcanic helmets.’ 

‘There was something playful about crossing frontiers and breaking boundaries that culminated in the ‘60s and ‘70s.’

The Kraffts are not as well-known now as when they were alive. How do you see their story, and your film, resonating with audiences?

‘Moving closer to the thing you love brings you a greater understanding. That is how to live a meaningful life, and ultimately, die a meaningful death.’ 

‘Katia and Maurice exhibit this in both their lives and their deaths—and thus, that is a key message I hope our audiences will take away.’

‘This isn’t a climate film, but another hope is that people will read into it a story about the sentience of nature and its power and will fall in love with our planet the way Katia and Maurice did.’ 

‘I think we are at a moment of such a planetary crisis that I hope that people will find a way to enter into their own relationship with the natural world that can be a means of respecting and finding empathy for the Earth, which is under such attack.’ 

‘I think there are ways that, though they died 30 years ago, their story can still feel contemporary with some of those themes.’

‘I also hope it will help facilitate conversations about volcanoes and ecological relationships extending far beyond the 93 minutes of our film.’ 

‘While this story is rooted in Katia’s and Maurice’s perspectives, there is, of course, a vast universe of people who live in relationships with volcanoes.’ 

‘As part of a release, we hope to launch an educational and speaking tour that invites conversations with scientists, cultural ecologists and Indigenous experts who possess deep, generational, cultural knowledge born from lived experiences of volcanic landscapes, as well.’

How do you see FIRE OF LOVE as an evolution of your past work?

‘I am fascinated with how humans continue to make meaning out of relationships with nature. It’s so wild, varied, diverse and powerful, and I am so incredibly curious, moved and delighted by it that I think that will always be something I explore.’ 

‘This film is very different from my first feature, “The Last Season,” and my second independent film, “The Seer and the Unseen.” Both were largely vérité films, and this one was so constructed.’ 

‘It felt like a departure from a filmmaking perspective, but still at the heart of the film is an inquiry into the sheer power of the natural world, how to make sense of mysteries that humans can’t quite access, and the stories we tell in the face of that mystery.’ 

‘“The Seer and the Unseen” particularly engages with those questions about myth and reality and imagination. For FIRE OF LOVE, so many people think of science and myth as opposites. But I like the idea that they are just different means of storytelling about the planet.’

Who were your main collaborators on the film?

‘I very much see this as a collage film. There are so many different pieces that came together, and we wanted it to have a handmade, stitched feel to it.’ 

‘This was possible thanks to the highly collaborative process we had on the film, with my wonderful editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, producers Shane Boris and Ina Fichman, executive producers Greg Boustead and Jessica Harrop, and a whole incredible team. I just can’t highlight the collaborative nature of it enough.’ 

‘We all really love each other and had a lot of fun making this film. I hope that sense of play and love can be felt in the final work. I bow to all of their profound work even though I am the one giving this interview.’

Main image: Katia Krafft wearing aluminized suit standing near lava burst at Krafla Volcano, Iceland. Photography credit: Image’Est. Image kindly supplied by WDW Entertainment.

Image of Fire of Love Director Sara Dosa. Photography credit: Erik Tanner / Contour by Getty Images. Image kindly supplied by WDW Entertainment.

Katia Krafft smiles while putting on her giant metal helmet while on Mount Etna in 1972. Photography credit: Image’Est. Image kindly supplied by WDW Entertainment.

Trailer: Fire of Love (PG): National Geographic Documentary Films Presents a Sandbox Films Production an Intuitive Pictures & Cottage M Production. Directed by Sara Dosa.

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