Credit: DOCNYC
by Molly Adams Featured Film

The Fire Within — Werner Herzog [DOC NYC ’22 Review]

November 24, 2022

Hot on the heels of the year’s earlier release of Katia and Maurice Krafft — Fire of Love — comes Werner Herzog’s tribute to the volcanologist couple, The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft. Compiled almost entirely from footage that the pair shot on their many expeditions to volcanic eruptions, Herzog’s minimalist archival effort envisions the Kraffts as radical artists in the arena of image-making (Katia through still photography, Maurice in film), focusing less on their devotion to one another and more on their devotion to what became their second craft. In the Kraffts, Herzog finds kindred spirits, equally though differently committed to the creation of truly astonishing images, and in The Fire Within, he achieves what any documentarian strives for: the true magnification of his subjects in every aspect of the film. Herzog is unabashedly reverent of his subjects, just as they were in the pursuit of their own art, and his respect for their work permeates every frame. With an intense attention to detail, Herzog finds common cause with the Kraffts, never seeming to impose or project meaning onto them, but instead creating an echo of their artistic and personal sensibilities in his own work.

Perhaps the most memorable sequences of The Fire Within are those in which Herzog steps back as a narrator, exercising restraint and allowing the Kraffts’ footage to speak for itself. In contrast to Fire of Love’s over-dependence on narration and constant contextualization of the Kraffts’ work, Herzog expertly draws out the commonalities within their work, the elements of humanity and nature that the couple continually returned to, collating these themes into extended sequences that capture the sheer magnitude of their subjects. Nowhere is this more evident than in a sequence set among the ruins of several eruption sites the Kraffts had visited, in which Maurice’s camera continually seeks out religious iconography reduced to detritus. The sacred symbols of Christianity are cast into the mud or else shattered by the sheer force of nature, quickly abandoned by believers who were faced with a far more pressing act of God. Here, Herzog’s title, his “requiem” for the Kraffts, is at its most poignant, questioning through their own footage what their roles really were. While the pair were, first and foremost, volcanologists, their secondary vocation in documenting these eruptions and their aftermath often led to their footage being an act of memorialization. Often arriving at the scenes of catastrophe after victims had fled or perished, the Kraffts’ footage serves as remembrance for what once was, capturing places where few others dared to step foot. It is only fitting that they are afforded a requiem of their own, and who other than Werner Herzog could be more up to the task?

Published as part of DOC NYC 2022 — Dispatch 3.