On 3 June 1991, a deadly cloud of hot gas and rock spewed out of Japan’s Mount Unzen. Among the 43 people consumed by it were scientist-filmmakers Maurice and Katia Krafft. They left behind over 200 hours of footage from their decades of work, which Werner Herzog draws on for this stunning eulogy. From 1977’s La Soufrière through to 2016’s Into the Inferno, Herzog has long been fascinated by these violent natural events. His profoundly personal voiceover is a fitting memorial to two people who gave their lives in the pursuit of both science and the pure cinematic image.
From the outset of this terrific documentary, Werner Herzog makes clear that this is not a biography of the two volcanologists but a eulogy. A remembrance of what they did and how impactful their work was. We learn little about the duo; you could learn a lot about the pair in the similarly titled Fire of Love documentary, also released this year. Here though, Herzog is more fascinated with what they filmed and what they saw, and goodness, they saw some extraordinary things during their time on Earth.
There is a good chance that you may never have heard of Maurice and Katia Krafft, but there is a strong chance that at some point in your life that you have seen their photos and films of volcanic activity and everything that comes with it from the 1980s. Their work is of such a gorgeous magnitude that you cannot help but just stare at what they were able to film.
There is a montage of shots around an hour into the documentary that is just the lava flowing and some classical music playing. It is as breathtaking as it is meditating. You are almost overcome by what you see. The majesty of the lava never seemingly ends. Not until we see Katia stand in front of the lava flow do we actually comprehend how large it is. She is a small insignificant part of the frame, trying to stand as close as the heat attacks her. The powerful flow urges itself on, not knowing or caring about the fact that it is being documented. Not for the first time in The Fire Within, you feel equally overwhelmed and transfixed; this is just that type of documentary.
The Fire Within is the type of documentary you could show people of any age, and they would be transfixed by, but if you show this to teenagers in a Geography class, well, you may well have introduced someone to their new passion. That is the calibre of the editing and work done here. Herzog speaks rarely; he allows the visuals and the sounds to do his talking. He merely adds lines here and there to either what we are thinking or what he was thinking when watching it.
At one point, he mentions how he would love to have been there while filming one of their expeditions because of how difficult it seemed. Perhaps we would not enjoy such an excursion, but if we got to see what the Kraffts saw, you would forgive that bit of discomfort. Herzog and editor Marco Capalbo have created something marvellous and stunning.
For those who want more narration to their documentaries, the Fire of Love documentary is almost the perfect companion piece for The Fire Within. An accidental collaboration where we not only learn about the two subjects but then settle down to see their work in a beautifully artistic way. There are certainly worse double bills in the world.
As a single entity, though, The Fire Within is an absolute triumph that engrosses you in the wonders of our planet, much as the Kraffts would have wanted us to be from their work; in that stead, it becomes the perfect eulogy of two bold scientists.
Watch now on Amazon.
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