Two Volcanologists on the Edge of the Abyss, Searching for the Secrets of the Earth

A new documentary, “Fire of Love,” tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, married scientists who flirted with death to study volcanoes—and paid the price.

A 3D satellite image of the Mount Unzen Volcano, on the Island of Kyushu, East of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1993. Two years earlier, volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft died there, studying the eruption. (Photo by Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
A 3D satellite image of the Mount Unzen Volcano, on the Island of Kyushu, East of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1993. Two years earlier, volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft died there, studying the eruption. (Photo by Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

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On an overcast day last August, I stood in a parking lot listening to an Icelandic guide explain to a crowd of dejected tourists that the ​​Fagradalsfjall volcano had stopped erupting the night before. “There is no carrot at the end of this journey,” he said. 

Reaching the volcano required a 4.4-mile hike up an elevation of 990 feet, and the guide  was issuing a warning: no fiery spectacle awaited us at the top. The pyrotechnics were over.

After the guide’s speech, some of the group turned back. The rest of us trekked onward through an alien landscape of old craters and lava fields, battling wind, cold rain and mud until we arrived at a slope overlooking the volcano’s still-smoldering mouth. Whitish gases wafted from the cooling puddles of rock. Even though it was now inactive, there was still something transcendent about it. I’d never seen earth so newly made.

I was brought back to this moment while watching “Fire of Love,” a documentary that is nominated this year for an Oscar and tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a French couple who were also intrepid volcanologists. 


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A volcanic eruption, the film’s narrator, Miranda July, says, “forever reshapes the earth.” There is nothing else like it. “Once you see an eruption, you can’t live without it,” Katia says at one point. 

I heard this sentiment echoed in Iceland; Icelanders told me of hiking to Fagradalsfjall at dusk several nights in a row just for the chance to witness land being born. We think of volcanoes as harbingers of destruction, but they are also cradles of creation. 

Katia and Maurice were drawn “like magnets” to the intriguing paradoxes that volcanoes embody–their breathtaking beauty and their magnificent power, both to annihilate and to seed new life; the sudden unpredictability of volcanic explosions and the incomprehensibly long timescales they are governed by. “We try to bear witness to this force, but the human eye cannot see in geologic time,” Maurice says. “Our lives are just a blink compared to the life of a volcano.” 

For the Kraffts, volcanoes presented an irresistible mystery. They became volcano chasers, spending their careers rushing to the site of the latest eruption, wherever it was in the world, from Iceland and Indonesia to Zaire and Alaska. (They even honeymooned on a volcano.) They wanted to learn everything about volcanoes, and they were willing to risk their lives to do so. In bearing witness to the forces of volcanoes, the Kraffts also sought to convince governments of the hazards they pose to people nearby, a struggle that mirrors climatologists’ to communicate the urgency of global warming. 

Danger was their constant companion. They tiptoed right up to the edge of the abyss, as if closeness alone might unlock the volcano’s secrets. “Maurice says we are crazy to stay here. And yet, we remain. Curiosity is stronger than fear,” Katia says, of one of their perilous expeditions. They shared a deep devotion to the scientific quest to answer nature’s most enduring questions, no matter the personal cost. “Understanding,” the film tells us, “is love’s other name.”

Because Katia and Maurice were filmmakers themselves, collecting mountains of footage, photographs and samples from the field, we are able to see them as they saw themselves. We watch recordings of Katia in her signature red hat, petite, nimble and watchful for small details, pressing her cheek gently to volcanic rock as if she were pressing against a lover. Katia was more cautious than her husband; she followed in Maurice’s heavier footsteps, keeping him in sight of her camera. 

Maurice barreled ahead, adventurous to the point of recklessness, testing his foot against a pool of half-cooled lava until flames lick at his toes, sailing across an acid lake, sustaining burns on his ankle so severe that his skin “peeled like an onion.” 

We see Maurice crawling on his hands and knees into a cave, running his fingers over its surface. He is always standing too close to the fire. “I want to get closer. Right into the belly of the volcano,” he says. “It will kill me one day, but that doesn’t bother me at all.” 

The Kraffts’ footage allows us to see volcanoes through their loving eyes. The images they captured are thrilling: lava like glossy taffy, stretched into incandescent strings called Pele’s Hair. Lava like bubbling soup or spattered blood. Sprays of lava drawing molten parabolas through the air. Lava glowing scarlet against a dark sky. The Kraffts’ lenses linger on the many textures of a volcano: mud and magma and ash and smoke. Much of their footage feels otherworldly, and not only because of the silver spacesuits they sometimes wore to protect themselves from falling rocks. Theirs was a landscape of extremes–of heat, light and motion–that are unknown in the quieter corners of the earth.

After the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the Kraffts journeyed to the United States to study the aftermath. There they found the remains of tapes made by their friend, David Johnston, a volcanologist who died in the eruption. His body was never recovered. Studying Mount St. Helens changed the focus of their research to gray volcanoes, which are more dangerous and less understood than their hot, “effusive,” red cousins. “When people imagine lava flows, those are the reds. The nice ones,” Katia explains. “Then you have the gray volcanoes. The killers.”

The focus on gray volcanoes led them to Colombia in 1985 and the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz, which killed more than 20,000 people. “How is this possible in the 20th century, when everyone knew?” Katia asks, after witnessing the utter devastation caused by mudflows in the surrounding villages. 

Scientists inside and outside Colombia tried to warn officials about the dangers of living close to Nevado del Ruiz, but they weren’t taken seriously. The Kraffts came to see their films as a persuasive tool that could avert similar tragedies in the future. They hoped the evidence they brought back from the edge of the abyss would encourage the implementation of evacuation plans and alarm systems. 

Although “Fire of Love” is not about global warming, Katia’s question about volcanoes in the 20th century is one we might also ask about climate change in the 21st: How is this possible, when everyone knew? 

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“Fire of Love” stands as an argument for listening to people who devote their lives to meaningful engagement with the earth–and for seeing in their examples a model for other ways of relating to nature. “This isn’t a climate film, but another hope is that people will fall in love with our planet the way Katia and Maurice did,” the director, Sara Dosa, has said. “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.”

Ultimately, the Kraffts’ mission to make sense of volcanoes by getting as close as possible–and their dream that volcanoes would someday no longer claim human victims–led to their deaths, even as it saved others’ lives. The audience knows that Katia and Maurice will not survive from the beginning. “This is Katia, and this is Maurice,” July says, five minutes in, introducing the couple as they stand on Mount Unzen in Japan. “It’s 1991, June 2nd. Tomorrow will be their last day.” They couldn’t know what the narrator knows, of course. But they knew they had been tempting fate for years. 

Katia and Maurice died together on Mount Unzen doing the work they both loved. They were found with a watch, its hands stilled forever at 4:18 pm, and a camera, symbols of their lifelong pursuit of scientific knowledge and their desire to peer beyond the limits of our blinkered understanding of nature. “Fire of Love” pays tribute to the love the Kraffts shared for each other and the unique passion they shared with the world. “They loved the same thing,” July says, near the end of the film. “And that love moved us closer to the earth.”