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Pabst and the Social Film

lulu "Pabst and the Social Film," by Harry Potamkin, originally appeared in Hound and Horn in 1933. It was one of the earliest extended works of criticism on Pabst published in the United States.

The war was over, defeat its German portion; the inflation was still within the raw feel of the Kleinburger. That class looked upon itself pathetically; its cinema plainted self-pity in films like The Last Laugh, New Year's Eve and The Street. "Die Strasse" of brothels has been a favored milieu for German pseudo-tragedy, and among its outstanding photodramas is Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street), Georg Wilhelm Pabst's first film.

Joyless Street (or Streets of Sorrow) is a picture of the famineridden Viennese clerk class, die Angestellten, that fringes on the proletariat, dovetails with it, and ultimately is part of it. Abject in its position, this functionary and small-merchant class could be understood in the terms of Pabst, a middle-class Jew from a middle-class city, Vienna, the head to a nation that has no torso. Pabst set a mood of hopelessness, the descending and enveloping oppression of hunger, of pittance and dread. He was as yet the humanitarian, and not the "psychologist," in the "freudlose GassGasse" (the street without Freud). His sensitiveness placed this picture of the stricken above each other such recital by the more typical German directors: he was not moralistic. His Viennese origin substituted delicacy for delikatessen; he did not compound the pathos on the recipe of "Mehr! Mehr !" This same delicacy, finesse, becomes, we shall see, a distraction later.

The German artists of this "golden age" made their characters anonymous in the hope they would be universal. The characters eventuated frequently into caricatures, the converse of Peter Shlemiehl—they were shadows without reference. For at least half of his initial film, Pabst preserved the characters from this deterioration, and maintained a mood of relevance and sympathy. However, he was not working in the isolation of his own attitude, nor was his own attitude resolute and aapart. The picture did not support itself on this level all the way, though it held up longer than Grüne's The Street. It collapsed into the rampant absolutes of melodrama. The German petty-bourgeois class was contemplating itself pathetically, hardly with stern realism. The stratum above it was holding it away from critical inspection, because that superior stratum needed a buffer between itself and the lower seam. It was a simplistic pathos the artists distilled from the war and the inflation : therefore anonymity, therefore the concoction instead of the experience, therefore the failure to sustain the sorrow and the event of which it was the mood, therefore the romancing among scarecrows with perpetrations of "fate." Merchant, flunkey and knecht of the abacus did not dare to be drastic. Despite Germany's awful experience, its films were more fretful than tragic.

Through this period Pabst was gaining his cinema knowledge. He worked within the double-tendency of the German lichtspiel toward the real, away from the real. He was around when, through the insistence of the dominant control and the straitjacketed studio-mind, the energies of this sturdy film subsided into "ingratiating virtuosities," billows and columns of light, engineering pomposities, architectural shells, remarkable but vain. Pabst brought into the German stolidity something of the volatility of Vienna. He let his characters unfold their plight without the inquisitional rack. As compensation, he found in the intensity of German performance, though often it leaped from the frame, a discipline that enforced his finesse, reined it, made him keep his eyes open. The German film was all pillars, Pabst was mainly nuances. There was a blending of the two in the first part of his first film; the latter part was neither pillar nor nuance, the structure had collapsed under the preposterous relations, the routine of the literary closet, a mockery of the tenants in the Joyless Street. The director had not been perspicacious or wilful enough to extract and reorganize from this confusion the probable data that might have continued the social drama. He was himself caught in this confusion, an acceptation not limited to Germany nor to the period of Die freudlose Gasse. Periods of great stress incite the self-protective will to deceive and be deceived, and melodrama—its absolutes—is servant of this will.

Pabst moved farther into intensive drama. In Secrets of a Soul the story of a knife-phobia "complex," he relates the case, rather than renders the mind of the case. He is still true to the German pillars, does not convert the case into the flux of images of an atelier easel-film like Germaine Dulac's "extra-visuel" La Coquille et le Clergyman, or Luis Bunuel's "sur-realiste" Le Chien Andalou, films lightly, naïvely subjective. True, our director did include neurotic fantasies in the stolid case-study—under the guidance of Drs. Abraham and Sachs—but even these were hardly "pure flow." Pabst had no time for tidbits of self-expression, for pictonal implicit films ; and fortunately he did not yield to the symbol ad absurdum of expressionism, he was too substantial for that. But he could not escape, given the fee-simple case of an obsession, a blunt pedantry in recounting the thesis of the knife and the "soul." If the narrative was warmed to more than a formulation that was because of the zealous acting of Werner Krauss. Because Pabst himself was not, evidently, a Freudian fanatic, the film has no self-excitement; it is orderly, clean and without affectation. The public mind was whirlpooling in the individuàlized neuroses that flattered and satisfied the middle-class: it was having a great, if aimless, time! Pabst had been ricocheted into this vortex, though his own "suppressed desire" was more social than Freudian. Psychologism became his preoccupation. In the ifim Abwege (Bypaths), Pabst's best artisan-job of the silent days, the finesse of this quasi-psychology gives to a bland and cliché story a suavity and clear-edged composition that for the moment inveigles one into accepting the particular theorem of sexual "crisis" (Crise is the apt French name for the film) as true and important. But when one recognizes that the thesis has been organized entirely through short-angles and the convulsions of Brigitte Helm, skilfully manipulated by the director, the whole business is discovered as a setup and, crystallizing a feeling that has been gathering insistence as one has followed the films of Pabst, the observer suspects that gentleman of being unscrupulous, of putting over something exceptionable. in motion pictures like The Loves of Jeanne Ney, adapted from Ehrenburg, and Lulu (Pandora's Box), from Wedekind's Erdgeist and Pandora, the polishing of surfaces, the feints, the detachment, the rarefied atmosphere of the ineffable—all the qualities that have effected the cult of Pabst— are as distracting as Herr Pabst's scrutinies are to the Herr Pabst of his abstruse days. Here one has to ask the import of the jigsaw puzzle before one realizes that Pabst has been playing a game. In the effort to put the puzzle together, the client finds many parts missing. Herr Pabst has not been scrupulous, not careful enough of his own integrity and its obligation to earnest witnesses. And this is not surprising: his very sources, if taken "as is," were not profound relationships but only exhibits, more effete than Pabst's earlier ones and therefore more treacherous: they stop Pabst at the surface of his films, entice him into exploits chic, pseudointellectual, seeming so subtle yet really saying nothing. There is no impetus for him to lift the lid of Pandora's Box. Here is a man meant for character and all that he is submitting is a manner. His intensive considerations temporize in skin-grafting, though he has been called an "anatomist"—an anatomist of surfaces! To the troubled charge "unscrupulous" came the answer "super-conscious," a cult inflation that corroborates the ineffable, the cryptic —what indeed was our director hiding? Perhaps his own weariness, for certainly dabbling with effigies and charting their manoeuvres must be enervating. Never content in the rôle of an eclectic, Pabst could not manufacture completely clever films. His very distractedness is not without a sense of perturbed conscience: he would like to travel "beyond desire."

The sharpening conflict in Germany, the polarization of the forces, would naturally touch a man like Pabst. It would intensify and direct his social suspicions and tend to dissipate from his concern the shallow complacencies of the ladies and gentlemen of euphemy. At the point two things occurred: Pabst saw Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion and Death of Joan of Arc; the cinema enlarged its prospects with the advent of sound. To Pabst the Dreyer film was the deepest experience. When the Anglo-American imagist H. D. interviewed him—cult indeed! a cynosure of esoteric eyes looks up to a movie director—he would not hear one word against Dreyer's film. A year before, H. D. had compared Joyless Street with the work of Kuleshov the Russian and had preferred Pabst because, she said, he "takes the human mind .as far as it can go," while "the Russian takes the spirit . . . further than it can go." Her objection to Joan was similar, but Pabst would not subscribe to her fear of the maximum, though he was her maximum.

In these films of Pabst, he had been turned away more and more from his own maximum. In his first film there was social plight, but be had failed to establish its base. His environment was sorrowing, but it did not understand its terror as the resultant of social causes. There were, in the film, starting-points for the dynamic relationship which would have explained the resultant had Pabst extended these points in character and not as the conventions of performance. These conventions became increasingly operative apart from fundamental concrete motivations, until Pabst was sending his camera velvet-like over the scene, veneering the picture, squaring the corners elegantly and rounding circles with grace—being "subtile." In Joan he found, if not the historic social base, at least a maximum of intensity of conscience and intensiveness of treatment. He who had dwelt on glossaries encountered an artist devoted to the human text who was not pedantic, not moralistic. His ethical sense was stirred, and consequently his aesthetic sense was revived from specious day-dreams. The artist of keen nerve-ends could no longer yield to his periphery, to topographies that gave neither the lay of the land nor its consistency. He sought and found social material whose complexity the new compound of sound-sight could make articulate. His nuances have become elements of structure; his films are no longer circuitous—he has realized a direct character that transfigures the qualities of charm and grace into the incisive and superb. He no longer dailies with "the woman who has been abundantly charged with sex-consciousness"; she is only a figure of speech. Pandora's Box is inconclusive not because "one should not make films of literature"—that is a sophistry—nor unsatisfying because Wedekind cannot be cinematized. It is inconclusive and unsatisfying because the literary source is a network of negotiations and not the experience of people; and the film, in consequence, figures of speech stalking as men and women. KrasznaKrausz has listed the "seven essential scenes" of these "variations on Wedekind" and has described the non-climactic scene—by-scene construction of the picture. Though the "ideographic chart" is interesting, it merely strengthens the criticism that the picture is an abstraction and that Pabst has wasted on it his talents for the intensive. That he does not include "pauses, stops or interruptions," which Kraszna-Krausz calls "artificial breaks or breathing spaces," may be due to the film's not containing anything to pause over. "Concentrated atmosphere" allows reflective examination, but the film is "atmosphere" without content. It is "too diligent, too tasteful, too beautiful" because its diligence, taste and beauty are errant, refer to no concrete tangible edifice. The film and its creatures are lustrous, never luminous. Unwittingly appropriate are the film's alternative endings : the lust-murder of the prostitute Lulu or the Salvation Army drum-rally. The latter is truer to the value of the film, though the former is the Q.E.D. of the theorem. The picture is skin drawn over a hollow body, and, though tantalizing contours are etched on the parchment, they are ephemera, illusive momentarily. The cultists beat triumphant tattoos on the drum, they were rallying their own fetichisms.

Pabst broke through this aura. His integrity had been misled, diverted, confused but not undermined. Its positive elements, potentialities, reappeared. They had been visible in his first picturc but had been increasingly submerged as his "mastery" had developed. He was more vigilant now, he who had been so close to complete self-betrayal. In Westfront 1918 (Comrades of 1918), he has produced the least showman-like of war-films, a picture intensive in its character-convergence, sharply attenuated in its character-relations, not spreading like valiant steam into an ominous yet compelling universe. True, it is a picture not more than pacifistic, it does not assail or divulge causes, but its pacifism is not flamboyant nor self-delusive, it is on its way to an acute attack upon the war-makers. With more politicalization, Pabst might produce the film of war that would state through the agonies of human beings the sources of war within our society and the means of shattering its domains. His intensive treatment, now that he has sound and speech, permits the back-and-forth reference of the climax, war, to its social scene, competitive society, imperialism. There is almost no Soviet film in which war is the whole picture.

Incidental to his new tendency is Pabst's program-picture, a provincial farce, Skandal um Eva. Not important in itself, the film indicates again that Pabst has thrown off the ulterior trappings of skill: the film is executed with proper modesty and goodhumor, the charm is qualitative and not weighed and measured. Pabst knows where to reserve his calculations, where to respect the mild esprit. The film, despite its incidental character, is present in the movie-goer's reminiscence; and, as a further instance of its director's self-respect, the absence of any eclectic quality, of any sign of touching-up the traits of humor with conceits, is lively proof of maturity.

From the war-film to Die Dreigroschenoper (the modern reconstruction of The Beggars' Opera), thence to Kameradschaft, the progress of Pabst's conscience has been notable. One has but to compare Pabst's work in the former film with what a Lubitsch, a Clair or a Mamoulian might have done with an identical material to appreciate this magnificent production in its category of the "musical film." It is a proud work, bold in its vertical structure: the pillars are erect and the nuances firm and structural. There are none of the blandishments of the "musical film," Pabst has not organized the relationships into the insinuations of intrigue, the Lubitsch pattern; nor into the Clair arabesque; nor has he yielded to handsomeness for its own sake to attain a Mamoulian statuesqueness and picturesqueness. He has actually transcended the category of the "musical film"; or better, extended its province.

This victory has been achieved through a diligence that found worthy material. Pabst's directness found a substance for his direction, a substance grand and difficult, but, to the right artist, pliable, conforming. It is quite evident that the operations began at the core of the material and worked outward, for there was a core, the heart that was missing from Pandora's Box. Mirthful, sardonic; melancholy, sympathetic—here was whole-hearted largess for a director of great proportions and none less. No conceits, no trailings-off or tangents toothsome but extraneous, not one element of virtuosity—but unified character composed of men and women in various settings, song and episode. The lyrics of Brecht, adult and pungent, are sung, recited and spoken, are molded into the dialogue and the total compound structure. The sound-values of consonants and vowels are realized in condensation and enlargement. "So-ho" becomes a grand and succulent piece in the utterance of the baritone pitchman, whose voice sets and sustains the vocal pitch of the film, a pitch borne by the relative non-inflection of the Kurt Weil music. The gray encompassing tone, with its gradations and harmonies, the bold figures, not merely guilt or innocence stuffed with straw, the selection of prototypes down to the casual physiognomy in the crowd about the pitchman—all going back to the stimulus of the Dreyer film—achieve a motion picture that is perfect construction. If within the joy of this perfection a doubt arises, it is because of dangerous suggestions the cynical or sectarian may draw from the events themselves. The characters of the film are lumpen, and their chief, peachem, provokes them, out of personal rancor and revenge, to confront Her Majesty on gala occassions. The demonstrators are ragamuffins and frauds, their demonstration the trick of a mountebank who, on learning he has had no cause for vengeance, calls his army back, but—and here is a redeeming irony !—the beggars become militants, their flood of wrath will not be halted, the leader may shout his compromise, but the rankand-file demand succor. This is not a revolutionary assertion, simply because it is not asserted by a revolutionary group and is not spoken in revolutionary terms. Still, in its undertones of vibrant social sympathy, and its overtones sardonic in their satire, the picture transforms the raw material of melodram—in its original sense—into a very stirring approximation of the revolutionary march—an approximation that is not triumphant, as it could not be, but which is warm and in the direction of the element to whom the victory belongs, as the film itself unquestionably leaves one to feel. The victory is Pabst's, and it is a further step in his progress toward social conclusiveness. Never egregious, his daring is, however, pronounced. Like Dreyer he reaffirms the authenticity of the event by eliminating the obsession of period curlycues, historicism for the sake of propriety. He indulges in extra-territoriality: China is and yet is not China; this is and yet is not Gay's London, it is 19th century and contemporary London —Berlin or Paris, or even New York. Nor does this keep the occurrence on nebulous frontiers, afloat in the air; the film imparts a very concrete, tangible, immediate milieu whose temper becomes all the more trenchant for the structural reasonableness of the décor and the costumes. The German studio has become a creator, in this film, not merely of studio-marvels but of a dominion of baroque laughter that is not satisfied with its own fineries but directs these fineries into tart notes on contemporary society, where the racketeer and his police-chief unite to run the premier bank on the main thoroughfare. The film is lavish but not prodigal: as in the wedding-scene, or in the brothel, Renoir reproduced as a picture-postcard, where the words of the song are preraphaelitish with fingers crossed. The film terminates with the wearied beggars, who have sent the demeanor of Queen and police-commissioner into consternation, fading into the shadows where, as the lied of the off-screen baritone observes, those in the light will not see them. Is there hopelessness here? No, the tone is too sympathetically bitter to be described as hopeless. And assuredly this is progress in our Herr Regisseur: and not one tinge of distraction!

Very logically the next picture by this director should have been one explicitly ethical, unambiguous and direct. In Comradeship completeness is not attained, but it is progression. The data is not drawn from a literary clinic nor from a robust melodram— musical play—it is a matter of actual record, a mine catastrophe at Courrieres on the Franco-German border a decade before the war. The movie, like every other art, is, at its highest point. revelatory. It achieves revelation through record, the core of experience, and restoration. Pabst, on the scenario of Vajda, extends his achievement in Die Dreigroschenoper by exploiting the studio to remove the studio (an uncommon thing in Germany) and effects a documentary veracity in setting, demeanor and speech. For this he has had the collaboration of the eminent cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagner, and the expert designer, Erno Metzner, himself a director.

To transcend the record, Pabst, with the initial assistance of the scenarist, delays the event thirteen years, until a year after the armistice. This "telescoping" heightens the social import, makes more poignant the biases of the individuals, gives the film a meaning into the future, gains for the film an acuter conscience. A fire in the French sector entombs the miners. The German miners going offshift give up their free time to risk their lives for the French miners, only yesterday foes. The rescuing-party rushes in motor-trucks through the frontier—it is fired upon! the frontierguard is dutiful. The German mine-superintendent phones the French and receives the gratitude with a "you're welcome !"—the risks of capital! This commentary is rather the reader's than the author's. Three miners on duty in the German mine—the trio had been affronted in a French café the night before—dig their way into the French sector. The leader of the three had, not many months earlier, hollowed the frontier—"goes 8oo meters down !" —on a less friendly errand. They are entombed with a boy and his grandfather, who has entered the mine unseen to save the lad. The film is then a record of calamity, vigil and rescue, terminating, when the injured men are freed from the hospital, in a festive departure of the rescuers, where devotions are exchanged in words, French and German, whose spirit if not whose letter is comprehended by German and French: We are workers, with but one enemy, Gas and War!

The film needs a further articulation—what and who is this one enemy whose properties are gas and war?—but that completion could be made only under auspices more drastic. Perhaps Pabst felt this when he said he was through with "ethical films." However, we need not take this statement as final, for recently he said he was glad to make Don Quixote in Paris, because there he could be freer to make a social film, perhaps by the simple removal from too intimate surroundings that restrict him. He had been able to produce his tentative maxima because the Nero company was beyond the field of the Nationalist magnetism of Hugenberg's U.F.A. But in a Kameradschaft success is proportionate to propaganda. Certain flaws will be suspected but hardly substantiated. The quest of the old man will be called too "sentimental" and too "melodramatic," but only because the judges have in mind spurious attitudes that have maltreated similar episodes. The search in Kameradschaft is valid because it is entwined in the development of the film. One of the vigil scenes may seem too deliberately grouped, but its place in the evolving structure is so doom-impending that this very arrangement is at least a possibility. Alexander Granach's acting as the leader of the triumvirate is traced with a stylization not quite documentary, but he is so potent a player that his presence does not contradict authenticity. A quarrel on these points concerns merely the question: is the beauty-spot a blemish? The real problem of the film is deeper.

The picture is accurate, indeed so accurate as to be a puzzle to those who expect the heroic in the treatment of such a theme. Pabst is never oratorical in his portrayal of the human element in the rescue, never colossal in his depiction of the mechanics of the rescue: he is always close to the ethical fiber of the event, and from this steadfastness emanates the artistry—a significant development in Pabst and the German kino, sluggish amid jingo lost-glory and bockbier films set to goosestep measures and 3/4 takt. Undoubtedly, Pabst has been stimulated by Soviet pictures; less by those of the "masterful" period of Pudovkin and the "immensities" of Eisenstein than by Pudovkin's first and most convincing dramatic film Mother. There is something of the same imminence, the same throbbing and lyrical truthfulness, the same intensity of personnel. The Pabst film is, quite correctly for its purpose, less histrionic; but it is also less victorious in its assertion, and that is where it lacks in memorableness. It is too empirical! does not develop its social tendency.

Sound has allowed Pabst an aid in the double-speech, French and German, very specific values, and a lingering quality— "Georges !" called by the old man—that sensitizes the appeal of pathos. The French girl who has refused a dance to the German the night before beholds the rescuing-party murmurs : "Les Allemands ! C'est pas possible !" Here is a speech within the theme, speech that is correlative to the play of the people at the mine-gate. The inflection is contained within a subdued range, allowed to break through at strategic points. Its essence is documentary, its contact revelatory, and along the line of its construction Pabst might have extended his message to its fullness, thereby forestalling the criticism that the film lacks warmth. But for this extension was needed the consummation of Pabst's own ethical tendency. He has, in the film, urged fraternity, intra-class amity: his sympathies are with the operatives. He sees international accord not as some vague "brotherhood of man"—social salvationism—but as proletarian solidarity. However, the proletariat does not achieve such unity in the continence of its own class, it achieves it in conflict, not solely with resultant conditions, but primarily with the causes of those conditions. It is, in brief, interclass enmity that strengthens intra-class amity. The operators in Kameradschaft are too casual to the occurrence, not corporate in an event to which they have given rise. Some observers have thought that all Pabst needed to fulfill his idea was another phrase to the concluding declaration. But that is a crude conception of relationship in society and drama. Indeed, not another word need have been added had the relationship been developed throughout the picture: the end might then have been grimly inferential and persuasive through its very truncation, "pulling the punch." As the film stands now, to accept the accord which effected the rescue as permanent in proletarian fraternity would be a delusive irony, especially when we recall that the actual vent at Courrières did not prevent the war of 1914. Pabst wanted this film as an "ethical message," as propaganda—for future solidarity. As in his first film, Pabst had possible starting-points for the relationship which would have transfigured the record into its effective revelation. The miners initiate the rescue, the operator is only distantly interested—would not the operator, as well as the more recalcitrant workers, have resisted aid, with his machinery, for a competitive property? The 'phone call of acknowledgement would then have been, without debate, the film's rather than the observer's irony. The extension (symbol) of the frontier-transgression, above and below, should not have rested too close to the factual; then the episode of the French miner recalling the war-enemy would not have appeared an intrusion. The film would have been built up to such a contrast. And within this heightened structure the intimate details in the café and homes might have been dwelt upon and thereby kindled to more than evidences. Again Pabst should have been more wilful, again he should have been less statistical. He faces, in an inconclusive propaganda, the dangers of social platitude, and hyphenation. Still, Kameradschaft, because it re-establishes the cinema on the firm ground of the concrete record of an event of mass-reference, and that outside the land of the proletarian rule, is of mighty significance.

But will there be a step taken beyond this maximum Since Kameradschaft, Pabst has made a film from Pierre Benoit's L'Atlantide, a spectacle cinematized in the mute days by Jacques Feyder. He has directed Chaliapin, George Robey and Sidney Fox—what a combination !—in Don Quixote, Cervantes or the opera? And now he is to film Kreuger upon a scenario by Ehrenburg—here is his opportunity for a further advance, if he can subdue the fantasies of the scenarist and resist the competitive suction of American romance, tang and unction, as expressed with flair in The Match King of the Warner Brothers. What Pabst does is important beyond the work itself: he holds a preeminent position in Germany, where he has succeeded the late Lupu Pick as president of "Dacho," the federation of German film-workers, and in Europe, where he has been a cult and whose strongest director he is today, if one excepts the Soviet Union. His centrifugal nature, momentums issuing outward rather than energies stultifying through introspection and egotistic devolutions, is essential to an art that has been held back from its own destiny. To find in the bourgeois cinema, within its commercial realm, as socially conscientious an artist as Pabst is indeed a discovery! The poles of this cinema in Germany are epitomized by a Pabst and an Erich Pommer, the great studio-showman who supervised Murnau, Dupont, Lang and others, a man ready to serve any job of whatever studio dimensions, but hardly an artist of the conscience of Pabst. Around these magnetic poles will gather the film-makers of Germany, the poetasters the ingenious composers of sophisticated kino-doggerel) about Pommer, the poets about Pabst, if Pabst holds to his position of integrity. Somewhere between these two is a Leontine Sagan (supervised by a Carl Froelich): her Mädchen in Uniform, meritorious in its actors' work, is sincere but cautious, does not venture upon its own terrain but preserves a respectable distance from its own social implications and aesthetic form (this has been called "dignity"). And there was much less to dare here than in Kameradschaft, for a great section of the German people is no longer hospitable to Prussianism: it is of the past. But Miss Sagan was well-behaved, an aristocrat; the film does not fail to leave a sense of faith in the Princess, the benefactress, who had she but known would have changed all that oppression of arbitrary discipline— there is still a nostalgia for the nobility. One thinks of what Pabst might have done with the same drama, where he would be exposing retrogression rather than agitating a progressive act.

* Italy invited Pabst to direct a picture; he suggested Spartacus as a theme. The suggestion was spumed, though pre-war Italy, dreaming of "Antica Roma", once filmed the gladiator—he's too hot now.

Translation via
line break on the Louise Brooks Studies website


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