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The Fire Within: A Requiem For Katia and Maurice Krafft

Werner Herzog's documentary, The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, 2022, remembers the artistic visions of the volcanologist couple. This extraordinary film contemplates an instance of filmmakers and photographers dying for their art.

In 1991, Maurice and Katia Krafft died during the Mount Unzen eruption on Japan’s island of Kyushu. Herzog’s documentary does meditate on their deaths and the notion of “impending doom,” but his concerns are the Kraffts’ humanity and their mythic imagery. He is not interested the couple as people per se – their lives are already abundantly documented.

Paradoxically for a film scant on personal details, one cannot substantially discuss the film without discussing Herzog. Herzog himself has visited active volcanoes before to capture their power, and he has risked his life in other ways too. Once Herzog was shot during an interview with the BBC. After relocating, Herzog insisted on carrying on with the interview, since “It’s not a significant bullet.”

The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft has been contrasted with Fire of Love by Sara Dosa, also 2022, which waxed lyrical about their romance. Although Herzog does provide some biographical details, Herzog accentuates that they were “artists who carry us, the spectators, away in the realm of strange beauty.”

There are also pronounced parallels between Herzog’s requiem for the Kraffts with his other films. His celebrated documentary, Grizzly Man, 2005, concerned Timothy Treadwell’s quixotic attempt to save the grizzly bears. As with the Kraffts, Treadwell’s raison d’etre led to his death (he, and his girlfriend, were fatally mauled by a bear). It is easy to see a continuum between Herzog’s fiction films and documentaries. In a corpus that includes Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972, Fitzcarraldo, 1982, and even Queen of the Desert, 2015, one can discern Herzog’s obsession with landscape, and outsiders turned explorers: the astonishment of the previously unseen, and its effect. In this way, Herzog is a successor to Caspar David Friedrich, documenting wanderers dwarfed by sea, fog, bear, and flame. In fact, Herzog selects images of Katia Krafft looking like a Friedrich-style Rückenfigur (a figure viewed from the back) against flowing molten streams.

At one point, Herzog implicitly references the importance of the sublime, arguing of Maurice that “as if out of nowhere, [his] images become grandiose.” With nuance he clarifies footage of an eruption, “Maurice captures here an apocalypse that we have never seen before on film.” This may be true of film, but such imagery was prefigured in painting: as one may think of John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, c.1821. Indeed, many of the images captured by the Kraffts recall, however unintentionally, the work of Philip James de Loutherbourg, Johan Christian Dahl, and Erik Bodom, who all painted scenes of ruin and apocalypse.

The very notion of the sublime was born of apocalyptic landscapes. When the British writers John Dennis and Joseph Addison explored the European alps in seventeenth century, they reported feeling a mix of horror and wonder at the uneven, strange landscapes suggestive of death and danger. Their accounts of powerless spectatorship over landscape became the basis for the notion of the sublime.

Herzog at times is eager to play on our powerlessness as spectators, describing a situation where the Kraffts only narrowly escaped the Una-Una eruption of 1983. As Katia takes her time to board a boat to safety and Maurice films her, Herzog expresses the desire to warn them. For some viewers, this may seem like an intrusion, though it also informs and offers a shared experience of suspense.

This sense of distance from danger may also provide relief to viewers. Indeed, when eighteenth century philosopher Edmund Burke proffered a taxonomy of the sublime, he accentuated the idea of safety as part of the experience, suggesting as a requisite “a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror; which [ . . . ] belongs to self-preservation.” In actual danger, one’s thrill and awe would ordinarily be overcome by the primal need for survival, but this does not seem to be the case with the Kraffts. We witness Maurice blustering, prophetically, “I have seen so much eruptions in twenty-three years that even if I die tomorrow, I don’t care.”

Scenes of villages, homes, and forests, wrecked by volcanic destruction, have a certain cadence with contemporary visual art. One may think of the photographs of industry and oil spills taken by Edward Burtynsky, or Thomas Hirschhorn’s installations of wastelands devoid of people, or Virginia Katz’s primal, lumpy works that depict ecological conditions.

Herzog is not blind to this contemporary relevance, emphasising the Kraffts’ footage of human and animal suffering, and death, in the wake of volcanic eruptions. Describing the blackened skies after an eruption, Herzog ponders “we are watching a scenario of the future. Could this pollution happen without a volcano, just caused by human behaviour?”

Herzog does not chart this possibility, instead, confining himself, mostly, to the images of the Kraftts. Perhaps Herzog could probe deeper. I missed the eccentric interviews from his other documentaries, for instance in the 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams where Herzog asks whether early humans cried in their sleep, or in Lo and Behold, 2016, whether the internet dreams of itself.

At times, Herzog’s narration in The Fire Within can sound almost clinical in comparison to his previous documentaries, and he alternates between the critical and reverential. He is happy to ridicule the Kraffts’ early cinematic experiments – pointing to the times they exaggerated or re-enacted events for the camera. But he also praises this very quality. Since at least the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the sublime has also been centred on an imbalance between human imagination and human comprehension, and Herzog sees within the Kraffts’ work not a mere documentation of the world, but also scenes of the imagination, of fantasy, and the stuff of dreams.

The Kraffts were artists and Herzog offers us a shared spectatorship of their work. We experience awe with Herzog. The images, edited with a dreamy pace and accompanied with an evocative score, alongside Herzog’s narration, are powerful enough. The film is indeed a requiem, with all the connotations of that word.

The Fire Within is now streaming exclusively on DocPlay
This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64

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