Directed by Sara Dosa | Written by Dosa, Shane Boris, Erin Casper, and Jocelyne Chaput | 98 min | ▲▲▲△△ | Disney+/National Geographic
This Oscar-nominated documentary tells the story of a pair of French vulcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, a couple who met in 1966 and spent their lives together, travelling the world to study and document volcanoes. The footage they shot is simply astonishing. The spitting rivers of glowing lava, enormous, explosive eruptions, and terrifying seas of ash, it’s the archival material that makes this something special.
The Kraffts passion for their work is presented and shared through interviews and their own footage. At one point Maurice floats in a rubber dingy on a lake of sulphuric acid — an example of their playful curiosity, though Maurice seems more likely to risk his life for the cause than Katia. The matching red toques they sometimes wear are adorable, like they’re on Steve Zissou’s team.
And we’re told from the top that both died in 1991 studying an eruption in Japan. Their ultimate fate hangs over the film, clashing with the frequently twee tone of the film’s narrator, Miranda July. Her whispered delivery dialled to full quirk, she calls the volcanos the couple’s friends. Statements like this are also common: “Understanding is love’s other name.” These sometimes bathetic flourishes don’t sour the film, but they do compromise it.
All of the rest of it is so fascinating, though, you can’t help but feel like you get to know these scientists a little. The mystery of their romance and shared interests is how the film is being sold, but it’s really more about the work and through that providing a better understanding of the planet we live on. Until seeing the film I didn’t quite grasp the two categories of volcano the couple helped define, red and grey, or how one is “friendly” and the other “a killer.” I also wouldn’t have known how important their work has been in saving the lives of people around the planet.
One more strange bit of trivia: Werner Herzog has also made a recent documentary on this couple, The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft. I look forward to seeing it when it’s available if only to compare the two films.