«It appears to me that the Kraffts were shooting the whole film about creation in the making. They just did not have time left to edit it.» Werner Herzog
Gushing, spewing out of a fissure, flaming hot lava then rolls down slopes of a volcano with a churning, fickle yet commanding life force, consuming everything in its path. The volcanic grandeur and mystery of the inner earth pouring to the surface inspires awe, fear and veneration. Captured as if in dreams, the image snatches us away at last into the realm of engrossing beauty.
Werner Herzog’s new film The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft (released coincidentally around the same time as Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, also on the Kraffts) pays homage to the wonder of this imagery shot by much celebrated volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft from France’s Alsace region, before the tragedy befell them in Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991, leading to their instant deaths.
Turning to an archive of 200 hours of footage left behind by the Kraffts, Herzog (who wrote, directed and narrated the film) did not wish to make another biography piece that dramatises the lives of the late volcanologists. Composed almost in its entirety of the footage shot by the Kraffts, the film charts their journey as volcanologists and as filmmakers. Theirs was a lifelong voyage that was marked by a pursuit of capturing the might of volcanoes and their spectacular and terrifying beauty, and the one that was also marked by a few narrow escapes. In 1983, «sheer luck» salvaged their lives at Una-Una in Indonesia. Katia and Maurice safely made it back to a boat; moments later, a volcanic explosion shook the island from stem to stern. They were lucky again some three years later at Saint Augustine Volcano in Alaska after an eruption released a massive pyroclastic flow, a cloud of superheated gases and rock fragments. Five years later, in Japan, the Kraffts were caught in another immense pyroclastic flow, which killed them.
Theirs was a lifelong voyage that was marked by a pursuit of capturing the might of volcanoes and their spectacular and terrifying beauty, and the one that was also marked by a few narrow escapes.
During their short yet pure and intense lives, successions of trips took the Kraffts across the world, from Iceland to Colombia to Hawaii. Filmmaking became a place of discovery for the Kraffts that tapped into their fascination with the arresting beauty of volcanoes. But it was a long way until they became the filmmakers (and volcanologists) that we know today. From the early days when Roland Haas did the camerawork, and the Kraffts’ roles were still seemingly undefined, to footage which at times looked like a home movie made by tourists where «everything is unspectacular», Herzog observes the Kraffts’ filmmaking metamorphosis with his typically dry and biting candour. And then came the awkward staging in grotesque helmets and a phase of Maurice styling himself after Jacques-Yves Cousteau, wearing his trademark red wool cap and smoking a pipe. There was a palpable shift from the Kraffts doing science to filming others doing science to taking up the camera. And «as if out of nowhere, the image has become grandiose. The great filmmaker is born», Herzog notes.
Erupting volcanoes have lured the Kraffts into remote corners of the world. However, beyond capturing the magnetism of these unstoppable and effervescent natural events, the Kraffts’ camera bore witness to the horrific disasters, destruction and agony that the eruptions caused. The camera then emerged as both the last survivor and the first responder that inquisitively inspected the scene in the wake of nature’s violence, now with a more humanistic gaze. Charred trees, ash blanketing the landscape, protruding pieces of surviving structures, the stench of carrion hovering over the scattered debris, rescue and relief efforts. Eerie and haunting, some of the images caught on the Kraffts’ camera in the aftermath of volcanic eruptions portend scenarios that are not too far removed from today’s reality. We are treated to a peculiar sight: after dust envelopes the streets following a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, locals ride their bicycles, donning plastic bags over their heads to protect them from the dry powder of earth’s matter. One even wears a paper bag with cut-out holes for the eyes and a frown for the mouth. «Dust was everywhere, and a thought creeps up to me that we are watching a scenario of the future», Herzog remarks. «Could this pollution happen without a volcano, just caused by human behaviour?»