On 3 June 1991, the Mount Unzen volcano in southern Japan erupted catastrophically, killing 43 people, among them the volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, a married couple who had become legendary for their passionate devotion to the study of volcanos; their daredevil films, photographs and books documented their breathtakingly dangerous closeup study of volcanoes in mid-flow. I first heard of them from Werner Herzog’s film Into the Inferno.
But where Herzog’s film has something dispassionate, almost fatalistic in its awe in the face of the volcano’s terrifying power, this film looks for something romantic, celebrating or consecrating the myth of the Kraffts: they loved each other, they loved volcanoes and it all came together on that terrible day. Maurice in fact often casually talked about the probability of dying in a volcano eruption – although the film shows him talking about it happening to him, not to both of them together. Did they really, in their hearts, think that it could happen? Or did their lifelong acclimatisation to danger inoculate them against that thought?
Either way, this film shows how their buccaneering volcanology was born decades before in the countercultural spirit of the late 60s – they were the new generation challenging the placid dullness of scientific work. They soon learned to distinguish between two different sorts of volcano. The “red” type, with its mighty red rivers of lava was paradoxically less dangerous than the “grey” type with its explosive detonation of dull ash, rocks and dust, which could swallow you up in a moment – which is what happened to the Kraffts in Unzen.
They really were amazing personalities: almost like children, although they came to be depressed that their work was not inspiring governments to work on evacuation protocols. Perhaps Herzog understood something about the Kraffts that this film doesn’t quite, for all its fascination: the element of the danger cult, or death cult, in their work. I found myself thinking of Timothy Treadwell in Herzog’s film Grizzly Man, the amateur grizzly bear enthusiast who hung out with grizzlies in the wild until one killed him.
• Fire of Love is released on 29 July in UK cinemas, and on 25 August in Australia.