The Primordial Fires of Our Earth

One of my favorite all-time Ken Burns productions is the two-part PBS series on the Lewis and Clark expedition, from 1804 to 1806, that saw the two intrepid adventurers brave their way from east of the Mississippi to the Northwest Passage of the newly independent America. The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, encouraged and supported by the Jefferson administration, revealed to the pair the extraordinary beauty and variegation of the land that made up the rugged frontier west of the Mississippi. They sometimes faced weeks of extreme hardship, physical and mental (Lewis apparently suffered from a bipolar affliction), but were aided by indigenous peoples and, at one point, by slaves. Their reports of their findings provided a vision of awesome beauty and powerful incentives for expansion. Burns provides a welcome glimpse of American courage and feelgood resilience at work.

I felt a similar awe while watching the 2023 Oscar-nominated documentary Fire of Love, the journeys of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft into the unknown interior of planet Earth. You watch stunned by the strange and almost-unbelievable imagery. It could be Lewis and Clark trekking across Venus, magma, lava, rivers of molten stone flaming and raging.  Where did the pair get the seemingly insane moxie to approach such the incredibly powerful ur-force of the primordial Earth?

Fire of Love is directed by Sara Dosa, an award-winning American writer, director, and producer. The film was a favorite of the 2022 Sundance Festival. Dosa’s Wiki biography tells us, “Her directing work focuses on the human relationship with non-human nature, often exploring themes of interconnection, myth, ecology and economy told through personal character stories.”  She has a masters in cultural anthropology from Wesleyan. In 2014 she directed The Last Season, intriguingly described as “two war veterans turned wild mushroom hunters […] form an unexpected friendship in the Oregon woods.”  Wiki tells us that in 2019 she directed and produced The Seer & The Unseen, about Icelandic seer Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, who communicates with spirits of nature. These projects make her ideal to follow what’s ticking in Katia and Maurice Krafft as they pursue their dangerous and spiritual quest around the globe as volcanologists.

While the directing is good, the editing is even better. Though it doesn’t get a lot of attention in the film as the inspiration, Fire is actually based on Maurice and Katia’s book, Volcanoes, Earth’s Awakening (1980) and Maurice’s Volcanoes: fire from the earth (1993). Both books are available for a read at the Internet Archives, as well as the archival footage that makes up much of Fire of Love. Each book provides samples of the history and legends that have derived from the observations and study of volcanic explosions and activity. In the 1980 book there’s an entry, titled “Descent into Hell,” that begins:

Numerous are the craters which we have explored and sounded, numerous our descents into the circles of Dante’s hell, into the eyes of Vulcan staring up at the stars, into the places where the planet palpitates.

This is compelling and evocative enough, but Maurice continues the mystique of volcanoes in the later, Volcanoes: fire from the earth, when he writes about Atlantis:

Volcanic activity has given rise to one of the most enduring of all legends, that of Atlantis. In two of his dialogues, the Critias and the Timaeus, Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-348 bc) told of the sudden disappearance of a vast island and its inhabitants, the Atlanteans. According to Plato the Atlanteans were refined people who admired works of art, venerated bulls, built sumptuous palaces, and extolled social justice. Their civilization was said to be as powerful and prosperous as that of pharaonic Egypt. But, suddenly, everything collapsed.

This sounds dreadfully familiar: culture and enlightenment are the first to go. Sober thinking as the hot-headed occidental Pol Pots rise to power and take us all down to Hell — probably using their new empty-headed AI buddies to pull it off.  In any case, the two books make a companion read for the film.

Of course, as fun as the books are to read, the footage of the couples pursuing volcanic activity reveals a world of proverbial wonder.  It is just something to see the couple treading around rivers of shooting lava in what look like space suits. These moving images have no correspondence to textual description and your reader-response performance of the imagery lets you down. (Shrooms are advised.) You’re just agog suddenly knowing there’s that side of our planet that reminds us that we’re on a quagmire planet in outer space. It’s a head trip.

From Au Rythme De La Terre Portrait De Passionnés Des Volcans, the source for the footage in Fire of Love (Internet Archive).

Fire of Love is essentially the books above raised from the dead of textual rigor mortis (over time), but even there the books are chock full of dramatic images that animate their lifetime project and help get the reader ‘on the same page’ as the volcano students.  Love’s overflowing love. As a jacket blurb for earth’s awakening tells us:

Here is the photographic account of ten years of activity ranging from Italy to Iceland, from Kilimanjaro to the Canaries, from Reunion Island to Indonesia, from the Hoggar Mountains to the Antilles, from Mexico to the Aleutians, in pursuit of the fiery monsters, the immense geological machines, the fantastic safety valves of our planet which we know as volcanos. Here is a hymn to the glory of an Earth which lives and breathes through these pores on its surface, which trembles, collapses, swells, splits, opens up, bleeds and splits, indifferent to the vanity of human concerns…Without these smoking mountains there would be no life, no water, no atmosphere.

They paint a picture with such words, but, as they say, a picture often paints a thousand words. And you can quote me.

The film is rather like a video scrapbook of Katia and Maurice’s lives  — how and where the couple met, the places they’ve been to observe the heat of the earth’s heart, supporters and detractors, why the project matters, how the proceeds from the books helped raise funds for future excursions, and the all-important slide-show (remember how friends would invite you over to watch Kodak slides of the how and when they left their footprints on Mt. Kilimanjaro, talkin’ and talkin’ all the time, like you gave a shit, and wondered if there was more wine to be had, and if he’d notice if you slipped out back with his pretty wife for some pick-up Greco-Roman tongue action in the mouthy moshpit?). It’s a great slideshow, though.

This extraordinary YouTube excerpt from the film (distributed by National Geographic and Neon) says it all:

It may even count as a spoiler alert. No, wait, when they get killed in the end is probably the real spoiler.

Aside from an inexplicable voice over narrator who sounded peculiarly like Laura Poitras in Citizen Four, as if the narrator were Ed Snowden revealing the planet’s hush-hush secrets and permanent record, I can’t recommend Fire of Love enough.  What a couple! What a project! Wow!

And while you’re at it, why not take off some time from your heady political activism to watch the PBS documentary on Lewis and Clark.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.