Katia and Maurice Krafft loved two things — each other and volcanoes. For two decades, the daring French volcanologist couple roamed the planet, chasing eruptions and documenting their discoveries. Ultimately, they lost their lives in a 1991 volcanic explosion, leaving a legacy that forever enriched our knowledge of the natural world. Director Sara Dosa and the filmmaking team fashion a lyrical celebration of the intrepid scientists’ spirit of adventure, drawing from the Kraffts’ spectacular archive. Fire of Love (NatGeo/Disney+)tells a story of primordial creation and destruction, following two bold explorers as they venture into the unknown, all for the sake of love.
Leanne Wiberg, a scientific advisor on the film, set aside some time to discuss Katia and Maurice Krafft with SCINQ.
Can you discuss the role volcanoes play on the planet and why it’s important to actually study them?
It’s important because they are very natural hazards. The world creates itself and the world destroys itself and it’s a cycle. Volcanoes are impersonal. They don’t know the difference between the tree they’re destroying or any human. It’s beyond our control. I think humans aren’t used to working with things that are so powerful, so we just kind of ignore it.
In terms of the film, how familiar were you with the work of the Kraffts before you got involved?
I was working at the Smithsonian Institution for the Traveling Exhibition Service for an exhibition that was traveling to 10 museums over a five year period. That’s a major exhibition. Half of the exhibit featured the Kraffts. There were photographs, their films, and their research. When they came to the Smithsonian, it was my job to get to know them. Because I would, I’m the one that would be writing the docent training guide, and writing and justifying the educational objectives.
I was ready to meet them. They were the king and queen of volcanoes in Europe, but they really weren’t well known in the US.
Why weren’t they particularly well known in the US?
I have no answer to that question. I can speculate. It was just pretty insular. Still, there’s not a lot of communication. There’s no cell phones, no faxes. Also, there really was no crosstalk, I think, between here and Europe. Yet the Kraffts had such a profound presence there. They were even doing talks in nursing homes, just to get money to do their work. Back then, we didn’t have GoFundMe campaigns and Substacks where they could publish their work and have people pay to hear it. The Kraffts just scraped every bit of attention of Europe to support their work.
The way it seems from the documentary that they were particularly known for their close-up observations and photography and filming of volcanoes. Can you discuss the importance of having close-up observations?
We wonder whether they were just risk takers, or whether they really had a valid purpose. It’s hard to say. But they needed all the details they could get, they needed the smells, they needed the sounds, because they really wanted to get to understand this phenomenon. I can’t explain why they were so attracted to it, just like a moth to a flame, but in the end, they ended up just communicating mostly with themselves and with the earth.
How did the Kraffts end up in the vicinity of Mount Uweno (Japan) when they died?
This was very, very orchestrated on their part. The Kraffts knew they needed to show the public a picture of the pyroclastic flow coming down a mountain, because it’s an absolutely terrifying thing. They can get a lot of science out of that, how it’s moving, how fast it’s moving, where it goes. Back in those days, we didn’t have the acoustic sensors on the mountains that we have now that tell us where they are, so they wanted to see it from the side. They projected where the pyroclastic flow would go. But this isn’t an exact science and nature sometimes beats you to the punch. It came down the valley that they were next to knock the next valley over.
The Kraffts were on a ridge looking to take a profile view of this pyroclastic flow coming down to observe at the bottom part of it where it goes down. It ended up not being a profile. It was head on. They were found by their and a Toyota pickup truck. They didn’t leave their sides. They stayed together.
What was their relationship like?
Maurice and Katia were like yin and yang. They each contributed, but together, they learned a whole lot more. He was the wind; you couldn’t keep him in one place. She was always worried about where he was on the volcano, he’d wander off. His job was like, oh, there’s something bright and sparkly over there. Let me see it. He was taking pictures along the way and films.
On the other hand, Katia was on the other end of the spectrum. First of all find a place for her tripod, and then she can only take pictures from where her tripod will let that camera move. Now, there were exceptions, but they just had different perspectives. What was nice was that they learned from one another. She learned what he learned over the hill, and he learned what she learned by looking at something closely.
How would a geologist approach studying a volcano, as opposed to let a geochemistry link since they’re both the same?
Well, geologists they don’t they don’t care. They don’t care what altitude they’re working from. Geologists can use remote sensing and aerial photographs. They can use infrared cameras. It doesn’t really matter where they are. They want to study every aspect using every tool. On the other hand, a geochemist focuses on what’s coming out of that little crack there. Does it have more sulfur and less iron, which means from our past records that were closer to eruption, things like that.
Chemistry by the way, got them into a lot of problems because the acidic nature of the air corroded the inside of their cameras. They had to they had to treat their film with an alkaline solution but very expensive camera they had was completely ruined after one use. I asked Katia about it. And she said, Well, that was okay. We paid $4,000 for the camera, but yeah, NatGeo paid us $10,000 for the for the film.
How closely does the film capture how they were in real life?
I saw mostly Katya. People talked to Maurice. In this window of time, I was with them for three days. They talked to Maurice differently than they talked to Katya because Maurice was kind of the class clown. Katya was more reserved and straightforward. But when they got together, the way that they were approached and they were spoken to was really different. I’m of the mind that there’s actually three characters in the film. There’s Katia, there’s Maurice, and I call his Matya or Kaurice, which is the two of them together. It was weird how when they were together, the whole dynamic changed.
What is their legacy?
The first thing that comes to my mind when it comes to legacy is Katia. The status of women in geology is still abysmally slow; only 40% of European Geological Society. She was a trailblazer. The two of them together are just known for the fact that they didn’t care. They were seen as fearless, but they also had their priorities firmly set. They worked to live while most other people just live to work. They found their comfort in nature.
IMAGE CREDIT: Image’Est