Reflections around the new Mirror

An eagerly awaited installment in the Russian Cinema Council's Tarkovsky DVD series was released on July 29 in the United Kingdom. The Mirror is distributed in the U.K. by the Artificial Eye Film Company Ltd. Note that this is a Region 2 PAL disc which means a multi-region, multi-system player is required to view it, if you happen to live in an orthodox Region 1 NTSC country like the U.S. or Canada. For this mini-review — which in the end turned out rather more technical than usual — we used two such players (Malata PDVD-N996 and Apex AD-600A) to minimise the risk of blaming on the disc what could possibly be mere PAL-to-NTSC conversion artifacts. [Postscriptum: While the disc is indeed labeled R2, it is in actual fact an R0 disc].

The picture quality is excellent. Whether one compares it to the grainy, edge over-enhanced DVD from Kino Video, or the slightly fuzzy Japanese Toho laserdisc, or even to the 35mm prints from the Soviet era, this video is a winner simply by virtue of its smooth, clean, luminous texture. It is especially filmlike in appearance when viewed in the progressive scan mode: the smoothness and the detail are astounding. Another big bonus is a very interesting interview with Aleksandr Misharin (co-writer of the screenplay).

Unfortunately, here the list of superlatives must end. For reasons unknown, RusCiCo has again decided to publish not Tarkovsky's original work but a significantly altered version. They have thus repeated their earlier mistake of similarly corrupting Stalker on DVD (see e.g., our News page entry for 29 January, 2002). That version of Stalker subsequently had to be replaced due to the public outcry that ensued.

There are two types of alterations in the new Mirror:

  • Audio: The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio mix does not even attempt to preserve the Author's intent. Yet again — as was the case with the RusCiCo Stalker — we are treated to music that is too loud and/or fades out too late. Furthermore, we are forced to wade through the morass of extra acoustic space that never existed before.
  • Video: Some of the dark scenes are rendered too bright; detail meant to remain in shadow stands out clear as day. We do not need to mention what it does to the overall mood of the film.

We now focus our attention on each of these two problem areas, in turn.


The following are just some examples of the many changes that have been made to the soundtrack.

  • Bach's organ prelude which is heard over the opening credits continues until, and actually overlaps with, Narrator's first line. This is a distinctly sloppy effect.
  • The fire sequence. Mother enters the room and says: "Fire. Only do not shout." The children run outside. As the camera pulls back slowly we can almost feel the uneasiness in the air when suddenly... a cuckoo clock strikes seven! Its sound overlaps with the sound of the falling bottle (or is it an oil lamp chimney?) — another sloppy aural clash. Add to that, just a minute earlier the time on the clock was plainly visible: 7:28.
  • Then Mother walks toward the well, sprinkles water on her face, sits down. During this essentially silent scene we should only hear the squeaking of the bucket plus a barely audible electronically synthesised noise or murmur. In the new mix the entire scene is completely dominated by the roar of the fire (absent in the original) and the loudly overdubbed synthesiser. The repetitive squeaks of the bucket are almost inaudible.
  • Next the scene changes to the narrator as a boy asleep in his bed. The quiet synthesiser sound should continue without change and eventually fade out gently when the boy wakes up. In the new edition, at the precise moment when we cut away from the fire the loud roar suddenly stops — the resulting mood is very different. What may have been a dreamlike memory of the fire becomes more like a documentary of the event followed by cutting away to the boy asleep.
  • An Echo effect has been added to the off-screen voices of the narrator and Arseny Tarkovsky.
  • There is something very odd about the classical music fragments in general: the sound is noticeably louder, with very shrill high frequencies. Parts of the music seem to be heard twice, the second time repeated with a fraction of a second delay. This does not sound like echo, but rather as if certain instruments in the orchestra were chronically lagging behind the conductor. (The echo problem largely disappears when listening to the centre channel only — unfortunately this cannot serve as a workaround because portions of the dialogue are mixed exclusively into left/right.)

The original (director approved) mono soundtrack is not included as a Menu option on the DVD.

In the following side-by-side comparison, we note the rather noisy soundtrack of the Kino DVD (which is, of course, one of the reasons why the RusCiCo release was so eagerly awaited in the first place). It is, in spite of its noisiness, a musically acceptable soundtrack. The RusCiCo/Artificial Eye audio track, however, presents us with what is perhaps one of the more idiosyncratic renditions of Bach ever to find its way into the digital domain.

Bach sample: Kino on Video DVD [MP3 / 2.9 Mbytes]

Bach sample: Kino on Video DVD [MP3 / 430 kbytes]

Bach sample: RusCiCo/Artificial Eye DVD [MP3 / 2.8 Mbytes]

Bach sample: RusCiCo/Artificial Eye DVD [MP3 / 430 kbytes]


The above mentioned excessively bright transfer of certain scenes appears most clearly contradicted by one of the characters in the film herself: the doctor's wife to whom Alyosha's mother wants to sell the turquoise earrings. She enters the room in which the light had gone out and she says to Alyosha: "And why are you sitting in the dark?" This scene is transferred so bright that it looks as if she was standing in broad daylight. Compare:

"Why are you sitting in the dark?"
—Kino on Video DVD
"Why are you sitting in the dark?"
—RusCiCo/Artificial Eye DVD

Another example is that beautiful shot of the hand illuminated by a flame. When the exposure is right, it looks like the hand is on fire. This illusion simply does not work on the new DVD, since we can see both the background and the burning firewood behind the hand very clearly.

The opening credits are for some reason redone slightly: they do not always fade-out/fade-in. Sometimes the following fade-in comes earlier, resulting in a dissolve. And sometimes not. It appears almost random, and results in a rather "homemade" look of the credits.


We find all of this rather puzzling. Why would a company like RusCiCo, a company presiding over such an ambitious project as the release of hundreds of Russian film classics on the DVD within the next few years, be so careless when it comes to publishing some of the most carefully crafted works ever put on film? (One is also tempted to wonder why a traditionally quality conscious and discriminating publisher like Artificial Eye would choose to distribute a defective product.) It is well-known from Tarkovsky's interviews, from his books, from his friends, even from anecdotes, how meticulous he was about everything and how important every little sound or detail was to him. He would study how exactly the mud from the bottom of the pond raised before he decided where to film the short scene with the Narrator as a boy, swimming. He would listen for a difference between the sound of milk and water splashing on the floor. This is the sort of thing any would-be restorer of a Tarkovsky film should keep in mind.

Why is it that Arts other than Film have long-established traditions and specific procedures for publication of the old Masters, while people involved in publication of films behave as if none of this knowledge existed. Why do they insist on reinventing the wheel while Literature has its science of textual analysis from the holograph manuscript down to first editions; while researchers in the field of Classical Music know of a systematic approach toward producing an Urtext; while highly trained experts deduce which stroke of the paintbrush belongs to whom on a painting under restoration. Yet for some reason all this seems completely alien to the practice of film restoration, and the custodians of the original elements have no reservations about making them available to pretty much anybody: people whose only credentials are directions from their managers to do the work. Undoubtedly everybody involved means well but restoration of world class art is not just a hobby, it's a serious profession.

We certainly do not mean to begin a crusade against RusCiCo here. We appreciate the tremendous amount of energy and good work that must have gone into getting the Council off the ground. But what would the world say if the Louvre started repainting the Mona Lisa to make it more snappy, or some publisher came up with a rewritten and "more readable" edition of Proust's A la recherche...? end block

FOOTNOTE: For RusCiCo's point of view click here. Note that a corrected version of this DVD was released in early 2003. For more details see the news items dated January 4 and 7, 2003.

©2002 - Jan Bielawski/ Trond Trondsen of
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