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'Fire of Love' is the romantic and working relationship of the Kraftt volcanologists

SHANNON BOND, HOST:

Katia and Maurice Krafft were world-renowned volcanologists who used pictures and film to illustrate their search for fresh lava, erupting volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates. A new documentary, "Fire Of Love," narrated by Miranda July, uses their own footage to try and explain their fascination with molten rock and what it meant to be both scientific and romantic partners.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FIRE OF LOVE")

MIRANDA JULY: Katia and Maurice are after the strange alchemy of elements - the combination of mineral, heat, gas and time that incites an eruption. What is it, they ask, that makes the Earth's heart beat, its blood flow?

BOND: Sara Dosa directed "Fire Of Love" and joins us now from Berkeley, Calif. Sara, welcome.

SARA DOSA: Thank you so much, Shannon. It's great to be here.

BOND: What brought you to Katia and Maurice Krafft? Why did you want to tell this story?

DOSA: I first met Katia and Maurice Krafft, actually, when I was researching for the last film I directed, which is a film called "The Seer And The Unseen." That film tells the story of an Icelandic woman who was in communication with spirits of nature, which in Iceland are thought of as elves. For that film, we wanted to open it with archival imagery of volcanoes. Once we started researching volcano archives, Iceland, we learned about Katia and Maurice Krafft. The footage was absolutely spectacular, but it was really once we learned about them as people - their unique relationship to each other, you know, as a couple that fell in love and traveled the world with cameras, but also their personalities. They were so playful, so philosophical, so humorous and wise. We really wanted to get to know them more.

BOND: Right. And the film is so much about their relationship with each other and also their relationship with volcanoes. So how did the Kraffts fit into the history of volcanology, which is a fairly young science, correct?

DOSA: It is a young science, yes. They were really kind of at the forefront of a new movement in geoscience. They met in 1966 while they were university students in Strasbourg, France. The theory of continental drift was very new at that time. So they were part of kind of these pioneers that were really trying to charge the Earth with new technologies that were coming out, with new theories and new frameworks. But Katia and Maurice were particularly bold. They dared to go kind of closer to these erupting volcanoes than most people.

BOND: In the film, you allude to sort of teasing apart - there's the footage that, you know, is about scientific research, but you also sort of point out that some of it is more performative. As a filmmaker yourself, how did you interpret how they used their cameras?

DOSA: It was truly their dream to, quote-unquote, live by the rhythms of the earth. Katia and Maurice really thought of working with this imagery as an opportunity. You know, it was licensing their photos, creating photo books, for example, as a way to support kind of this footloose lifestyle that allowed them to chase eruptions whenever they came up. The other thing that it did - it was true scientific data. You know, the phenomenon of eruptions is so fleeting. It happens in an instant and will never happen the same way twice. And so by being able to capture that imagery and setting it to celluloid for posterity was a tremendous boon to scientists studying volcanism at the time and continue to do so. Whenever they appeared in their own imagery, though, they were kind of performing versions of themselves. They understood that if people liked them on camera, then they would thus be invited into their world, and then audiences could then kind of learn about not just the science of volcanism, but just the power of the earth.

BOND: And you do. You get a sense of this visually. I mean, so much of the footage - I mean, it almost feels - if you were going to write a Wes Anderson film about volcanologists, it would look like this - these quirky outfits, you know, the way they staged these shots. I mean, it must have been a real gift for you as a filmmaker to be able to sort of then take that and use that to advance the narrative.

DOSA: Absolutely. Their work was so deeply cinematic. And that's the thing that I find mind-boggling, because they're hiking up these gigantic mountains. You know, the craters were up to 1,200 degrees Celsius, but their cinematography and the still photographs that largely were taken by Katia - they exemplify such artistry, especially early on in their work. You actually see some of that style that's indicative of the French New Wave movement, which, you know, forms kind of the cultural backdrop of when they're coming of age. So they were not just after science. They were after representation.

BOND: So as the Kraffts focus their research, you know, over their careers onto more deadly types of volcanoes, you know, the film really chronicles how they seemed to feel this tension - right? - between their academic interests and advancing the science, but also making people aware of the deadly potential of these powerful forces. Can you talk a bit about that?

DOSA: So they're both drawn towards danger, kind of for different reasons. Maurice was just so kind of enthralled with the thrill of danger himself and always wanted to get closer and closer. Katia - as a very methodological scientist, she was very much drawn to danger more to understand kind of the power of how these volcanic forces worked. But it was really in 1985, when the Nevado del Ruiz eruption occurred in Columbia, that provided a real turning point for Katia and Maurice. Twenty-five thousand people lost their lives. And this was a disaster that could have been avoided because scientists, including Katia and Maurice, were calling for evacuations. They were calling for warning signals to be put in place. And that profound tragedy catalyzed kind of a new movement in their personal lives to use their imagery to try to convince governments more effectively about what could be done to give people early warning.

BOND: Is it possible, do you think, they saw sort of getting consumed by this force they loved as an honor, or how do you understand their relationship to that danger?

DOSA: While they didn't use religious terminology, the way I sometimes understand it is it gave them a sense of the divine, you know, being so close to creation and destruction all at once. So I think for them at a very early age, they kind of reconciled what it could mean to die at any moment. And that meant living in a way that was in accordance with their values. Maurice has a moment in the film where he says that he would prefer an intense and short life over a long, monotonous one. He calls it a kamikaze existence in the beauty of volcanic things. I really feel like that summarizes kind of their life philosophy.

BOND: I mean, as you just alluded to - and I don't think this is a spoiler because the film at the very beginning basically reveals that this career did lead to their deaths - they died in a volcanic eruption in Japan in 1991. And I wonder, I mean, how - what we can learn from their lives and from their deaths.

DOSA: To me, they really have illustrated what it means to live a meaningful life and also die a meaningful death. And so much of that is about the pursuit of love as well as navigating through the unknown. The more they learned about volcanoes, the more they realized they didn't know or could ever understand. But that quest into the unknown still brought them a sense of meaning and joy and love and brought them closer to each other.

BOND: Sara Dosa - her film "Fire Of Love" is out July 6. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

DOSA: Oh, thank you so much, Shannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.