They loved volcanoes and each other

In “Fire of Love”, the voice-over quotes Maurice and Katia Krafft’s feelings about the risks of their job: exploring and filming volcanoes. “I prefer an intense and short life to a long and monotonous life”, writes Maurice. Katia acknowledged the danger but said that at the time she didn’t care at all.

The Kraffts, married to French volcanologists, were killed on June 3, 1991, while observing an eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan. But the stunning 16mm footage they’ve shot throughout their career – full of gushing lava, flying rocks and giant clouds of smoke – lives on in the new ‘Fire of Love,’ a fully-featured documentary. archive compiled from approximately 200 hours of their material plus 50 hours of television appearances and other clips.

“I have so many questions that I wish I could ask them personally, and one of them is what the reels didn’t get,” Sara Dosa, the documentary’s director, said during a interview in Tribeca last month. After all, visiting volcanoes is fraught with pitfalls. The film has Maurice scalding his leg in boiling mud and shows him playfully testing Katia’s helmet by throwing a rock at her head. Dosa said they didn’t use “a fun photo we had of Maurice picking up his melted boot and throwing it into a lava flow.” It’s safe to assume that all of the couple’s movie gear didn’t survive either.

But “Fire of Love” isn’t just about the Kraffts’ time in the field; it is also about their life and their marriage. Dosa, who discovered the couple while doing research for a previous documentary, described her film as a love triangle involving Maurice, Katia and the volcanoes.

The film tries to stay true to them – “we always wanted to start with Katia and Maurice, first and foremost,” Dosa said – while maintaining a certain critical distance. A voice-over by Miranda July expands on and sometimes complicates the Kraffts’ descriptions, for example contradicting Maurice’s claim that he was “not a filmmaker”, but simply “a wandering volcanologist forced to make movies to wander around”. The couple – Katia with short hair and glasses; Maurice with the bushy mane and talkative – has traveled the world giving lectures and organizing screenings. Even today, thanks in part to their numerous books and television appearances, they enjoy a degree of worldwide fame.

“We kind of wanted to explore how they also shaped their own image,” Dosa said. “They seemed to understand that their public image helped them continue to live the life they wanted to lead. They performed versions of themselves, not at all inauthentic – it almost seemed like this higher truth of who Katia and Maurice were.

Bertrand Krafft, Maurice’s older brother, now 82, kept the images after the couple’s death. “My parents didn’t know anything about photography and film, and neither did Katia’s parents,” he said over the phone through an interpreter. “Someone had to take over the management of the assets left behind by Maurice and Katia, and I was the only person available to do so.”

Bertrand authorized the use of images of Maurice and Katia in other documentaries. Indeed, another feature film that uses Krafft material, “The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft”, directed by Werner Herzog, had its premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in Britain on June 26. But Bertrand said the movie he’s been involved with the most over the years is Dosa. “His ideas, his approach to the project seemed excellent to me,” he said. “That’s why I did everything I could to be able to help him.”

The footage included fully finished film and working materials both edited and unmounted, according to Mathieu Rousseau of Image’Est, the French archive that had stored Krafft’s collection of 800 film reels and 300,000 slides. (Bertrand Krafft sold the material to a Geneva-based company, Titan Film, after the documentary began.)

“What was complicated at the beginning, and also when we had to digitize everything to be able to allow Sara to be able to make her film, is that we had to understand what Maurice had done,” Rousseau said through an interpreter during a video call. Maurice, he notes, “did the editing himself. He had his own logic.

Dosa and his editors also had to make sense of the hundreds of hours of footage. Jocelyne Chaput, one of the editors of “Fire of Love”, said that on some reels, “I felt like someone had swept the floor of the editing room at Maurice’s house, then stuck it back together, and it was this reel.” Erin Casper, the other editor, said it was also difficult to ensure they remained accurate – with images loosely laid out geographically but not necessarily chronologically.

Additionally, none of the Kraffts’ 16mm footage had sound; all of the bubbling lava audio, for example, had to be added. The final version of “Fire of Love” draws on a mix of Foley effects and a library of field recordings which, according to sound designer, Patrice LeBlanc, have been accumulated over 30 years. The use of sound would not have been unfamiliar to Katia or Maurice, Chaput and Casper suggested: Some of the Kraffts’ films used sound effects or voice-over, or unfolded while Maurice lectured them.

Ken Hon, the scientist in charge of the United States Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, knew the Kraffts from the late 1980s and remembers that filming volcanoes was unusual then.

“There wasn’t a lot of volcanic eruption footage at that time, and certainly not stuff that was up close,” he said. “You had to be a volcanologist to film like them, because you had to be able to point the camera at the right thing to understand the process going on.” Today, these images are much more common thanks to lighter and cheaper equipment. Maurice, he said, “would be so in love with drones right now.”

When the Kraffts traveled to Hawaii, Hon recalls, he sometimes accompanied them to closed areas, such as the town of Kalapana when it was overrun by lava in 1990.

Filming “was like second nature to them,” he said. “They set up cameras and keep talking,” never stopping to say, “Stop, I gotta focus, I gotta focus.” Hon had some appreciation for the challenges the Kraffts faced: he helped his wife and fellow volcanologist, Cheryl Gansecki, make videos for about 20 years.

“High temperatures, it’s usually humid and there’s the acid gas that comes out of volcanoes, right?” he said. “The combination of these things is exactly what they tell you not to immerse in your electronic article.”

Steven Brantley, a volcanologist who retired after 37 years with the Geological Survey but returned part-time, said that even when the Kraffts’ images could give the impression that they were in danger, they positioned the camera “in such a way that they could walk in front and live to tell the story, over and over and over again,” he said. “So in that sense, I think they were very careful , even if it doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Hon didn’t think the Kraffts were reckless either. “The kind of eruption that brought them to Unzen, the domed eruptions with cave-ins and small explosions and such, those are the most dangerous types of eruptions because they are so unpredictable,” a- he declared.

The New York Times reported at the time that the couple and another volcanologist, Harry Glicken, who died with them, “had no chance of escaping when the pyroclastic flow from the main crater, two miles away, tumbled down the slope at an estimated speed of 100 to 125 mph”

Brantley never worked with the Kraffts in the field, but collaborated with Maurice on a volcanic hazard video that was nearing completion when Maurice died. Sections of it were projected in time to warn Filipino residents of Mount Pinatubo’s eruptions that occurred less than two weeks later. Brantley emphasized that educating the public about volcanoes was as much a part of the Kraffts’ legacy as their striking images.

Herzog, through a rep, said shortly before the premiere of his own film Krafft that he had yet to see “Fire of Love” but was hoping “in a theater in the next few months. weeks”.

The potential confluence of two Krafft movies reminded Hon of the overlapping releases of “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” in 1997. It must be like that with volcano movies, he suggested. “We don’t do them right away,” he said. “We always make a pair.”

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