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Arthaus Musik DVD - An Overview

This page discusses general aspects of DVD presentation and is intended to be read in conjunction with Gary S. Dalkin's reviews of Arthaus classical DVDs.


Before DVD was introduced we were promised three things. In relation to VHS, greatly improved picture and sound. Special features. A selling price of no more than £1 extra than the comparable video version of the same product. Small surprise then that when 20th Century Fox attempted to sell James Cameron's Titanic on a DVD with no anamorphic enhancement for widescreen TVs (though the picture was still excellent), no special features except the original cinema trailer, and with an official price of £25, there was outright rebellion from not only from large sections of the DVD buying public, who refused to purchase the product, but many retailers who refused to stock it. James Cameron appears to have taken the message on-board, and the recent American (region 1) releases of his films The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day have proved object lessons in what can be done with the DVD format. This are wonderfully well-filled discs which provide untold hours of genuinely fascinating behind the scenes material, from complete screenplays to interviews to production footage to audio commentaries. Most DVDs, of course, fall somewhere between the two extremes, being more than simply a video transferred to DVD, but stopping a long way short of the fullest use of the medium.

The DVD price promise was never kept, but with today full-price new issues generally retailing at either £15.99 or £19.99, it is surprising that Arthaus Musik feels confident to set prices, as advertised in the November 2000 issue of Gramophone, of up to £34.99 for a single disc. If £25 is too much for a copy of the most expensive film ever made, £35 for a transfer from video source material of a live opera production is simply titanic. Perhaps given the price of opera tickets, or buying a full-price 2CD set, it is considered reasonable.

With regards to Special Features, the most that the Arthaus range normally provide is the option to turn subtitles (in a variety of languages) on or off. Which at least is better than having them permanently 'burned' into the video image. The only other Special Feature I have found on any Arthaus DVD - and I say found deliberately, because it wasn't mentioned on the packaging and I stumbled across it while experimenting with the remote control for my DVD player - is a multiple angle feature on the Mozart Requiem disc (Arthaus 100 036). Otherwise these discs make no use whatsoever of the enormous potential offered by the medium.

Finally, regarding picture and sound quality, Arthaus DVDs fall into two categories. The discs featuring recent events appear to have been shot with digital broadcasting, high definition television and DVD in mind. They offer superb anamorphically enhanced 16:9 widescreen pictures of marvellous clarity, stability and detail combined with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks (and a stereo option for those without the necessary equipment) which genuinely fulfil the promise of superior sound and vision. However, many discs depend on transfers of older material, often shot under the constraints of 'live' lighting, on professional analogue video for VHS release and/or conventional 4:3 aspect ratio TV broadcast. The sound on these is usually PCM stereo, with a Dolby Digital 2.0 option. Such methods were perfectly adequate in the 80's and early 90's, but inevitably reveal considerable limitations when transferred to DVD then compared directly with material shot for the new medium, or with that transferred from 35mm cinema films. It is not Arthaus' fault, but due to the limitations of the source material many of the discs presenting older material offer little better than VHS quality in either picture or sound. Given this, together with the lack of special features, more conventional pricing would make these titles a much more attractive proposition.

Gary S. Dalkin


Reviews from previous months

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