At times, nothing is as gratifying to watch as a movie about obsession that lures you into sharing the obsession. “Fire of Love,” one of the movies that are opening the Sundance Film Festival tonight, is a documentary about an unassuming French couple, Maurice and Katia Krafft, who became the world’s most ardent volcanologists. Starting in 1966, when they met, and over the next 25 years, the two traveled to as many active volcanos as they could find, from Zaire to Colombia to Iceland to America to Japan — and when I say active, I don’t mean wisps of smoke billowing out of the crater. The Kraffts got as close as possible to the danger and spectacle of these seismic tectonic eruptions from the depths of the earth. They stood right next to gleaming rivers of lava, to massive showers of hot rocks, and recorded it all, leaving a filmed and photographic record of volcanic activity that remains unparalleled.
Seeing that footage is a lot of what makes “Fire of Love” a spellbinding experience. Yet the film also tells the enthralling story of two unlikely lives. The Kraffts, born 40 kilometers from each other in the Alsace region of northeastern France (that the region has shifted, over the centuries, between French and German control is part of what lends it a distinctive spirit), were the homespun version of daredevil soulmates, addicted to awe and united in their fixation. The film suggests that they loved each other, in part, through their love of volcanos. And why not? “Fire of Love,” which has been directed by Sara Dosa with a discursive, let’s-try-it-on lyricism, is like one of Werner Herzog’s documentaries about fearless outliers, only this one is touched with romance. (The Kraffts were, in fact, featured in Herzog’s “Into the Inferno,” a far less incendiary movie about volcano love.)
Were the Kraffts scientists? She was a geochemist, he was a geologist, and they became global experts in the field, but they weren’t academics, and they weren’t researchers hauling their specimens back to the lab for study. The experience of being there, right on the edge of the earth’s convulsions, was their finding. They were a lot like storm chasers, and maybe like vertical-rock climbers, with more than a touch of Jacques Cousteau in their pioneering desire to film what they saw and bring it to the world. (They presented their findings in books and documentaries.)
Through it all, their connection to seeing volcanos erupt was mystical and primal, suffused with childlike wonder. They wanted to touch the uncanny, and did; volcanos were their life force. “Once you see an eruption,” says Katia, “you can’t live without it.” Dosa gained access to their massive archive of volcano footage, and it contains some of the most staggering, terrifying, and beautiful imagery of nature ever recorded. The close-ups of spewing lava are like Jackson Pollock paintings in motion. The flowing tributaries of molten lava, with a crust on top that it simultaneously melts through, look like a Biblical inferno. The oozing chunks of black rock are like something out of “The Blob.” The Kraffts, in their way, were true filmmakers. When you see a shot of one of them in protective gear, silhouetted by a shooting curtain of red-orange liquid, it’s pure sci-fi.
Do the Kraffts come off as…you know, characters? Yes and no. They’re attractive and charismatic, but in a weirdly normal way, like a couple who could have spent their lives running a cheese shop in Alsace. Maurice is a genially bearish man, with curly brown hair, who looks like a brainier John Laroquette; Katia, with short hair and glasses and a vivacious grin, suggests a pixie version of Terry Gross. They wore their obsession on their sleeves, yet they’re winningly unpretentious and middle class about it. You would never look at them and think, “Yes, these two were religious about going to the ends of the earth to watch spewing volcanos.”
The film’s narration, which is read in spun-sugar tones of beguiling curiosity by Miranda July, says at one point that “Katia and Maurice were into volcanology because they were disappointed in humanity.” They had grown up in the rubble of postwar France, but the protest fervor of the ’60s didn’t incite them; it alienated them. And early in the film, we learn something about them that makes us suck in our breath. Miranda July says, “It’s 1991. June 2. Tomorrow will be their last day.” The two are headed for another volcano stakeout (of Mount Unzen in Japan), and it’s clear what we’re being told: that this is the one that killed them. That stunningly ominous fact sets the stakes for the entire movie. Maurice and Katia always knew they were risking their lives. In an early foray, the skin on Maurice’s leg was burned off by 140-degree mud — a baptism of fire. But from the start their mantra was (in Katia’s words), “Curiosity is stronger than fear.”
One way that Maurice and Katia weren’t conventional scientists is that they rejected the scientific community’s minute classification system for volcanos. Their take was: Each volcano is unique. But they did have their own classification system. For them, there were two kinds of volcanos: red and grey. The red kind are the ones that spew showers of lava and look perilous. The gray kind are the ones that spew impossibly gigantic clouds of smoke (like the famous images from Mount St. Helens), one of which that we see literally resembles an atomic-bomb cloud. The smoke volcanos may look less dangerous than the liquid fire ones, but, in fact, they’re much more dangerous. And the Kraffts, over time, moved from seeking out the red to the gray. We hear lethal stories of what the gray volcanos can do, the smoke exploding like an avalanche, often stretching far beyond the area it had been predicted to reach. And that’s what happened at Mount Unzen. Maurice and Katia stood several kilometers away from the volcano, but that wasn’t far enough. It swallowed them up. But “Fire of Love” is a movie powerful enough to convince you that they died happy.