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Review: The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft


- In celebrating volcanologist Katia and Maurice Krafft’s impactful but too short lives, filmmaker Werner Herzog creates a powerful film requiem

Review: The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft
Maurice and Katia Krafft (© Titan Films)

Their images went around the world, but their names are not solely synonymous with celebrating the raw and dangerous beauty of volcanic eruptions and raising awareness about the civilians affected. Their legacy is also that of a scientific couple consumed by the very thing they loved. While observing the eruption of the Japanese Unzen, French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft perished on 3 June 1991. Filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose 80th birthday was celebrated by the 60th Viennale, presented his homage to the couple titled The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft [+see also:
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as the opening of a series of gala events in his honour.

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Rather than shoot a straightforward documentary, the director opted to arrange the couple’s footage like a “musical”. Unlike Fire of Love by Sara Dosa, Herzog’s film is meant to be a requiem to them, fueled by heavy instrumental and choral music. But at the heart of it is the arrangement of the footage and photography from the Kraffts’ own archive. Their world is not experienced through a glimpse from the outside; rather, their life, their passion, is seen by the viewer through their own eyes.

Herzog pointedly opens with Katia and Maurice standing in front of a volcano while the giant crater behind them is continuously spitting out lava. It is a scary sight, but a few minutes later, both are beaming at the camera from a safe distance, helmets off, clearly in their element. Besides the music, Herzog’s recognizable voice keeps finding its way back into the picture, running like a red thread through the narrative and connecting the dots between their lives and the footage. 

His comments are almost reactionary to the pictures on screen. “This is Katia” and “this is Maurice” are amongst the first words uttered as the volcanologists pose in front of the volcano. Later, as his gaze switches to Unzen and the last known recordings of the couple talking to their fellow perished American colleague Harry Glicken, Herzog comments, “now something important is happening:” the Kraffts and Glicken are considering getting closer to the dome of the volcano.

It is, in hindsight, a reckless move, but Herzog is not interested in the more critical aspects of the Krafft’s lives. He barely dwells on the accusations by the media that they were provoking dangerous situations, or Katia’s reluctance to get closer to Unzen. Rather, as in a requiem mass, he highlights their achievements. This includes a few playful montages of the Krafft’s early exploitations in the 60s, their deep sea explorer Jacques-Yves-Cousteau-inspired red hats and the genesis of their visual storytelling.

Dreamlike sequences of their surreal footage from all corners of the world, which very few ever had the privilege of seeing with their own eyes, grace the screen. Smoking rocky expanses, deep mountainous valleys, sweeping shrubbery across desert landscapes, nature’s creatures inhabiting the zones between life and death. And of course, there are the volcanic eruptions, the pyroclastic clouds swallowing up their surroundings, islands collapsing, kilometres of mowed-over trees and human distress and death. 

“I am never afraid because I have seen so many eruptions in 23 years, that even if I die tomorrow I don’t care,” Maurice Krafft once said on camera. They lived life to its fullest, Herzog agrees, “they descended into hell to rip those images from the claws of the devil himself.” And as “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” plays, with one last powerful glimpse at two people joyfully following their passion into the belly of the beast, one tends to agree.

The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft is produced by Bonne Pioche, Brian Leith Productions, Titan Films and Arte France and sold internationally by Abacus Media Rights.

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