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The Gifts of László Nemes and Géza Röhrig
Clayton Davis5 October 2015
We simply don't deserve László Nemes, the first-time writer/director of Hungary's submission for the Oscar's Foreign Language category, "Son of Saul." Nemes vacuums everything we think we know about filmmaking and the Holocaust, and gives it a raw, intense, and fresh outlook that we haven't seen since Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," perhaps even Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Not to mention, he is thoroughly aided and indebted to the stunning and remarkable talent of Géza Röhrig, in his feature debut. The two simply dance circles around other films and performances seen in this year, with an authentic and genuine approach to art, that we just don't get to experience too often. I'm in awe.

"Son of Saul" tells the story of Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in the machinery of large- scale extermination. In October 1944, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy he takes for his son. As the Sonderkomando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task.

Its direction like Nemes that should make the world very optimistic about the future of cinema. If we have filmmakers like him, getting in the trenches of history and the human spirit, and beckoning its awakening into our souls, we should be so lucky to have him display the beauty and evil of the world in such a provocative and engaging manner. His choices in which to shoot the film, and portray one of the most heinous acts in the history of our existence is just downright scintillating. "Son of Saul" plays as if we're watching a disturbing, noxious, and depraved home movie about a time in which we never want to see. From a near first-person perspective, we enter the revolting world of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He uses out of focus camera work, to not bath in the bloodshed, but wallow in the psyche of a man, that is desperate for purpose. It's the single best direction of the year. I'd go so far to say this could be the single best direction seen this decade. His script, along with co- writer Clara Royer, is so painstakingly simple but echoes decades of oppression in its short, respectful run time.

Don't call him a "poet by profession" because newcomer Géza Röhrig doesn't believe in the word profession. There's only artists. Géza Röhrig is an artist, of which I haven't seen in some time. With little words, he says countless and devastating things about what he's feeling and what we know about ourselves. He doesn't use cheap tricks to engage the audiences like "really intense face" or "really scared moving." Röhrig displays the numb, almost disengaged weight of the world in every physical and vocal movement he chooses to exhibit. It's a flawless, masterful performance that we need more of in this cinematic world.

Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély is your next great craftsman to watch, even though making his mark on films like "The Quiet Ones" and "Miss Bala." He frames close-ups that Danny Cohen himself, would hope to achieve in his next collaboration with Tom Hooper. He stays with a person, a scene, a moment, so intelligently, and so vibrantly, he places each one of us in the rooms, full of fear, and full of hopelessness. The subtle yet effective music by László Melis is sonorous but the Sound team is what really needs their praise. Tamás Dévényi (Production Soundmixer), Tamás Székely (Sound Editor), and Tamás Zányi (Sound Designer) create monstrous and dynamic effects that essentially become its own focal point of the story. We are listening intently, desperately, and just fearful at every nick, boom, and cry we come in contact with. It's something everyone should and will notice and applaud.

"Son of Saul" sneaks up on you. It's too important and critical to our cinematic landscape to overlooked or forgotten. I can't imagine a more dour and sullen experience this year that fills my heart with this much adoration. It stands toe-to-toe with most Holocaust films created in and before my lifetime. It may be the definitive one this millennium.
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László Nemes' modern masterwork dwarfs every other film on offer.
Sergeant_Tibbs21 October 2015
You cannot take the Holocaust lightly in film. Some have tried, but it fails. László Nemes' Son of Saul takes the Holocaust very seriously. Instead of recounting it in a sombre documentary-esque way such as Schindler's List or even the gut-wrenching approach Alain Resnais takes to Night and Fog, we are utterly present in its unpredictable and relentless horror. While most Holocaust films struggle between their representation of order and chaos, often deciding to switch between the two when necessary, Son of Saul finds the ideal balance, showing these small shards of order within the chaos. The most fascinating idea of its premise is to show the prisoners appointed with the tasks of guiding victims into the gas chambers, organising their belongings and then cleaning up after them. It's a well oiled and melancholic cog, while we know every hard effort to scrub and pull is in vain as their eventual death is only postponed and not evaded.

Saul, played by first-timer and established poet Géza Röhrig, is one of those Sonderkommando prisoners forced to work towards the Final Solution. Our narrative follows him for only two days, but that's all we need to know to get a gruelling snapshot of his minute-to-minute struggles. When a boy nearly survives the gas but is pronounced dead shortly after, Saul recognises him – at least on some level, as it's never clear if the boy is his kin or not, but it is apparent he never took care of his own when he had the chance – and takes him as his son. To himself, he insists on giving his son a clandestine burial which must be officiated by a rabbi. Salvaging the body, locating a rabbi and performing even a small burial is near impossible despite them being in essentially a mass graveyard. Meanwhile, his peers are plotting an escape along with destroying the crematorium and will require Saul's help. However, he cannot assist both futile missions simultaneously.

The film has an incredibly unique approach to the concentration camps. Shot on a tightly framed 35mm hand-held camera, the photography is almost always focused on Saul, leaving the atrocities offscreen or out of focus, but often vividly audible. If there is any complaint, it's that the editing suffers from its long-take construction, but the sound design is an absolute masterclass. Saul's face remains stoic but Röhrig soaks it all in, leaving his mournful expression to interpretation. While he's apparently numb, he's always fully invested in the moment. No scene is quite as hard-hitting as when we watch Saul listen to the screams of people dying in the chambers while he waits outside their doors. It's his one break from being forced to work, and he'll immediately have to remove bodies when it's finished. The way the film builds these routines are very intimate and exhausting and despite being a fictionalised story, it feels very real. Those rituals of removals and cleaning are contrasted with the Jewish rituals that guide their faith, and especially Saul's burial plan.

But beyond the intense yet ambiguous horrors that show the cruellest side of humanity there's ever been in the modern world – despite us never getting close to a Nazi beside brief encounters – the film finds its emotional core in small gestures of compassion. Nobody is required to help Saul, especially in knowing the dangers involved, but there's an unspoken bond between every prisoner to help one another regardless. When he finds the rabbi who agrees to perform the service, it's not powerful because they've been stripped down and Nazis are murdering new arrivals around them – nothing compares to the experience of this scene – it's powerful because the rabbi says yes in spite of that. If they can redeem one shred of morality, it is a small victory and triumph of faith. Saul never lets go of that idea, even when he risks sabotaging the escape mission inadvertently. His mission to bury his son becomes increasingly arbitrary, but never without redemptive merit on a grand scale.

This is an astounding debut film for László Nemes on every level. Even a seasoned visionary director would struggle in such a precise execution. Having worked for the excellent Hungarian director Béla Tarr, his influence is clearly felt here. Tarr also uses long shots and utilises impassive protagonists but Nemes' work is much more dense, engaging, and arguably accessible in its own way but mostly for the immediate empathy the situation earns. While it matches Tarr's poetry, it's a lot more theatrically dramatic. Every one of the supporting cast is on a razor's edge though they never outshine the constantly pushed, pulled, and shoved Röhrig. He need not step in front of the camera again after this soon to be iconic accomplishment. The film's power is immobilising and thoroughly unforgiving, but with good reason. Son of Saul, with its immaculate production, attention to detail, and own noble mission, is not only one of the best of the year but one of the best of the decade. Despite its small scope, it dwarfs every other film on offer this year.


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Very well-researched movie
Zoli Zzz29 May 2015
I do not understand how the previous commentators were able to add their opinion, since I saw the very first screening of the movie outside Cannes in the Művész arts cinema of Budapest tonight, on May 29, 2015.

The movie was followed by a discussion and Q&A session with the artists.

Director Nemes aimed to create a movie that is deprived of the post-war artifacts present in most Holocaust movies.

For this goal, he and his staff made substantial historical research to make the smallest details truthful. The shooting took place from less than $2 million, in a very short period (28 days). French, Israeli and German investors did not give money for the movie for fear of a loss.

As the director mentioned, a movie of this length is spliced together form 300 to 700 cuts these days. Theirs required only 80. You are in the camp, you are Saul Auslander. There is utter confusion, you do not know what awaits you in the next second. This is a reality movie with no happy ending that shakes you.
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A poignant but debatable attempt to film Auschwitz
Teyss25 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Movies about the Shoah (or Holocaust) cannot be solely discussed on the same grounds as other movies e.g. plot, acting, direction, camera, settings, etc. They raise questions about history, remembrance and ethics.

Some persons debate the fact that Shoah CAN be filmed and, if the answer is positive, HOW it should be filmed. A "bad" movie (in terms of plot, acting, etc.) about Shoah is not just tedious, it could be considered as a lack of respect to the victims and survivors of camps and ghettos, as well as to their families. Even a "good" movie that inaccurately depicts Shoah could be considered as a lack of respect. For instance, director Claude Lanzmann (documentaries "Shoah", "Sobibor", etc.) strongly rejected "Schindler's List" even though in pure cinematographic terms it is compelling. For information the same Lanzmann approved of "Son of Saul".

However these two questions (can and how) mainly result from a more fundamental question: WHY film Shoah? The most obvious answer is history and remembrance. But then why not only film documentaries (above-mentioned Lanzmann, "Night and Fog" by Resnais, etc.) and write books (Primo Levi, Semprun, etc.)? Do we really need filmed fiction about Shoah?

The strength about fiction is it can convey more emotion, but that is also its danger: can any emotion render the absolute horror? Are we not fooled by our empathy when maybe there is no possible empathy? Of course the distinction between documentary and fiction is not so clear-cut, since documentaries use artistic features (editing, commentary, sometimes music, etc.), while fictions can be filmed as documentaries. This is where "Son of Saul" comes in and I apologise for this long, but I think necessary, introduction.

First, we cannot classify this movie as a mere "Description of a day in Auschwitz" or a "Movie where Shoah is a secondary element", but fundamentally as a movie about Shoah, by its ambition, its clear historical references and its intensity. I will not detail the plot, this is available elsewhere. For those of you who have not seen it, it is a very violent, disturbing movie (rated R in the US but I would not recommend it to anybody below 17 even accompanied by an adult).

"Son of Saul" avoids the pitfall of voyeurism by focusing on the main character, Saul, and mainly showing what he sees. The dead bodies are mostly blurred, the cries are mostly distant. However this radical precept which is carried throughout all the movie (except for the last few minutes) almost constitutes a second-degree voyeurism where the director constantly seems to affirm "Look how I avoid showing you fully what is happening".

Hence this strength of subjective view almost becomes a weakness as we empathise with Saul, notably his desire to bury what he thinks is his son, but less with other characters, even when his quest jeopardises the rebellion project. We do see to some extent how prisoners survive and die in the camp, but as a background to Saul's obsessive idea. Is the dead boy really his son? Is the rabbi really a rabbi or does he just want Saul's protection? Where is the body? Will they manage to bury it? So in a way the fiction of Saul blurs the documentary dimension of Auschwitz.

In most regards, "Son of Saul" is historically accurate: the inhumane conditions, the constant struggle, the fights between prisoners, the role of the Kapos, the barbaric SS, the bargains, etc. As a side note, it also convincingly reconstitutes the way one of the authentic and very rare pictures from Auschwitz could have been taken by insiders (the pile of bodies outside).

However actual conditions were certainly even more dramatic than those depicted: in general prisoners were much thinner and weaker, their clothes were dirty rags, their morale was very low, every moment was a tragedy. Also some elements cannot be shown easily: how do you film hunger, cold, pain, illness, despair? Can we blame the movie for not showing the full extent of the horror? I am not sure, because it might actually not be possible and even if it were, it would barely be watchable.

It is difficult to rate such a movie. Should we rate a movie about Shoah? Considering the artists take the responsibility of making and showing it and hence of being exposed to criticism, probably we may, if we are careful enough to distinguish between aesthetics and ethics.

For its audacity and cinematographic qualities "Son of Saul" probably rates 8 or 9/10: direction and acting are outstanding. For what we could call the "Shoah ethics" that I tried to describe in the introduction, I think it rates 6/10: a poignant but debatable attempt. Again, I am not sure any fiction could do much better. This is a personal point of view and I fully understand some persons were compelled and would rate it 10/10, or that others reject the movie with a 1/10. It really depends how one's own feelings react to such extreme images and artistic vision.
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This is not a Holocaust movie
chimie-340-3611289 June 2015
Warning: Spoilers
After the news about the movie's success in Cannes, there was a lot of conversation about whether we need "yet another" movie about the Holocaust. Still, as I watched the movie, I have realized that the main subject of it is not the Holocaust itself, but rather the human and his choices between morality and necessities, between family and strangers, between dead and alive. And, this is that makes this movie a perfect 10 for me: the painfully precise reconstruction of the mass murder and the almost PoV-esque, brutally relivable presentation of Auschwitz's everyday is just the beginning, just the setting. Still, I cannot overemphasize it that the reconstruction feels so realistic thanks to the filming style (the viewer remains so close to Saul, the protagonist, that almost smells him), the acting (that is, basically showing empty shells of seemingly living people in most of the movie) and the details (people using myriad of languages, mainly Yiddish to communicate, for example).

So, if Holocaust is just the setting, what is it really about then? It reminded me of a Greek drama with a protagonist, who has big choices with tragic consequences, with very clear dilemmas. With a big difference that you cannot hope of a divine intervention at the end – although as a viewer, I can understand if somebody hopes that some kind of happy ending will close the movie, after all, some kind of (even unreal) hope makes the members of the Sonderkommando alive as well.

If you see a "Holocaust movie", you end up wondering about how this could happen (and why is it happening again and again). In Saul's Son, you will be haunted by the pictures of the killings and by the partly banal practicalities related of it, but the main question will be: what would have YOU done, not as a Jew, but as someone who is on the blurry borderline between victims and collaborators, as a parent, as a comrade… as a HUMAN?

… and that makes it way more than "just" a (quite revolutionary) Holocaust movie for me.

Recommended for anyone who feels like 110 minutes of pain (it is, really, painful to watch) is worth to have an experience of visiting some dark edges of our humanity.
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Strong direction, performances, technical skill, research, and yet, it is a "ride" movie
brendanmacwade7 October 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I am really torn by Son of Saul (Saul Fia). It's a technical and acting achievement, to be sure. It doesn't feel like a first film. So bravo to László Nemes for pulling it off. And the film achieves what it sets out to do. So using my own criteria of what makes a good film, I should be giving it a higher score. But I can't. In the end, what was it? It was a decent into madness. It was a "ride" film, that pulled its protagonist and us along for some dramatic moments in Auschwitz, 1944.

Let's get the technical achievement kudos out there first. This movie was shot on 35mm in Academy Aperture. It is shot almost entirely in close-up, on the head of the protagonist, with most action occurring in his (and our) peripheral vision, out of focus. The effect is obvious. When he is pushed or pulled, so are we. We are right there, next to his head, seeing everything, and also sometimes looking away.

Direction - outstanding. Nemes gets great performances out of his actors. He sets and maintains the tone. He did a fine job. Hollywood would destroy this movie. They would give us wide angle establishing shots and dramatic prisoner monologues. Not here. This is a corner of a huge prison, with just a few locations, and most dialogue is in whispers. A network of whispers. The research is apparent. I was reminded by several survivor accounts of Auschwitz watching this.

Géza Röhrig has an amazing face. I imagine him getting the part simply by showing up to his audition and starting at the director. He is incredible. But so is the story, and that's where this film lost me.

** Strong spoilers ahead **

This movie is about a condemned man who has lost his humanity. Everyone has. However, in a most desperate attempt to do something humane, as a final mission, he commits himself to the insane task of burying a young boy who miraculously survived the gas chamber, but was fished off by a Nazi doctor. It might be his bastard son. But we will never know. The boy's death triggers his overwhelming motivation in this film. But, as one would suppose, his mission fails, step by tragic step. He is unable to bury the boy within 24 hours as directed by Jewish law. He believes he needs a rabbi to assist him in the burial, to say the kaddish as the boy is put into a hole. He risks getting shot multiple times in his quest for rabbi, and gets several of the his fellow prisoners killed in the process. He has a second mission given to him, but he fails it in pursuit of his personal mission. "You have betrayed the living for the dead," his closest fellow Soderkommando tells him.

While critics praise the film for it's humanity, I didn't see it. The story is about insanity. What a man will do when he goes insane. At that point, it becomes clear that he will reach a dead end and be shot trying to bury the boy somewhere on the prison grounds.

But no. In the second half, the movie becomes a "ride." Think Gravity, but in a death camp. I was impressed by the second night sequence in this film. It's small, in terms of what went into the production, but it feels massive. It's one set piece after another. Our Sonderkommando is pushed and pulled into various locations; from speaking to a Nazi commander, to pushing coal for the crematorium, to obtaining inside information about his imminent execution, to being saved by one or more prisoners or prisoner-kappos (think wranglers of prisoners by prisoners). At this point, he and we are passengers, seeing events that really took place (not necessarily in the same month of 1944). The close calls are amazing, but also, somewhat unbelievable. He intercepts a line of new arrivals being shot and burned, and is nearly shot. He makes the cut of Sonderkommandos to be spared, but in thrust into a rebellion by the survivors. Then, he becomes one of the few prisoners to ever escape into the Polish woods outside the camp, and still manages to re- locate and carry the boy's body, now wrapped in a sack. At that point, I had to give-up on this movie. We all know how this ends. He wouldn't be able to dig a hole on the prison grounds. But now the film is going to give us that scene outside the prison. Incredible, and not in a good way.

And so, in the end, I had to give this a thumbs down. We cannot allow ourselves to avoid criticizing films due to their subject matter. The Killing Fields sucked. And, the more I think about it, so did this. We need to preserve history. But we need to be able to question why a Hungarian director's decisions.
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Out of focus
GialloUncharted28 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I start by saying that I didn't read anything about "Son of Saul" before going to the theater, and that I didn't know whether it had received bad or good comments.

"Son of Saul" is not entirely bad and I think it's worth to see it, but it looks to me out of focus. I'm aware that the documentary - first person point of view is what the director wanted to give us, but I don't like it. Everything is so shaky, the hat of Saul is always cut and the background is blurred. I don't think that this setting adds up something to the movie.

What is more important: I consider that the story is out of focus. There is realism - what the prisoners were told to be reassured in the undressing rooms (hot tea - hot coffee - hot soup waiting for them, disinfection, remember what's the number of your hook), the differences between people and their social background, with a lot of languages and a bad German used as a lingua franca, the dehumanization of the prisoners that obviously can't handle that kind of monstrosities, the word used for the corpses, that is "stucke", pieces, and the enormous rush required to the Nazi guards in order to be able to "process" (that's the term they used) all the people daily "resettled" to Auschwitz.

I saw few days ago the monumental documentary of Claude Lanzmann called Shoah, and I think that the director of "Son of Saul" saw it too, because the "quotes" are a lot.

But in all this background blurred realism, I can't get the purpose of the main character, that struggles to carry out a task that in my opinion doesn't make sense.

It looks pretty clear to me that Saul has got no sons, since he had told so to his fellow coworkers, and he has no tears for the poor young kid, but still he feels compelled to give him a proper Jewish burial.

I understand that in Auschwitz the action of risking one's own life has a completely different meaning than what it does in normal contests, and Saul states that too ("we are already dead"), anyway I still think that this movie is a good chance that has been missed.
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A bit disappointing to be honest
markgorman30 April 2016
This movie is not taken on lightly as an audience member.

To classify it as 'entertainment' would certainly be wrong because the subject matter is so uncompromisingly challenging.

I wanted to love it unreservedly for the bravery of its content but I'm afraid I was left a little cold.

The film is shot in square format (possibly 4:3) which is immediately disarming and unusual (the last time I saw this was in the very different Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel) and it's used effectively because it gives the viewer a voyeuristic look into the mayhem that is Dachau where the movie is set. It also helps the director from a budgetary point of view because it eschews the need for expensive wide shots.

The opening scenes are astonishingly harrowing as we see the "pieces" of Jewish bodies essentially processed through the factory of death with disturbing, off screen, dog barks, German soldier orders and mechanical noise. It's brutal and affecting in the extreme.

In some ways this is what I grotesquely wanted from the movie. I wanted to be horrified like no horror movie could achieve.

Forgive me for this but it didn't happen. Yes, the mood was grotesque thanks, in particular, to the extraordinary sound design, but on screen I felt it shirked its potential too much.

In the end this voyeuristic cinematography ultimately becomes both tiresome and limiting.

The fundamental weakness of the movie, in my opinion, is in the storyline. Frankly it's not that credible and doesn't stack up. The main protagonist (Saul) discovers his (illegitimate?) son as a gas chamber survivor and smuggles him out of the situation to seek a Rabbi to give him a proper Jewish burial.

This leads to a sequence of events that side stories with an undercover camp breakout in which he is also inexplicably involved.

Sorry, it's not credible.

And Géza Röhrig as the lead didn't really do it for me. And so the early wonderment of the movie, it really is very moving, starts to erode and gradually descends into incredibility.

I love what this movie stands for. I respect every iota of it.

I just didn't think it was particularly good overall.
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Son of Saul evokes mixed feelings
drarthurwells7 May 2016
An excellent production depicting the grim reality of Hitler's concentration camps, focusing on the story of Saul, an inmate seeking some return to normal human existence in the context of his horrible life and soon impending death.

I couldn't help thinking that Saul was nuts (which is true) in his totally futile, and compulsively driven, quest for a return to normalcy in his life. Particularly when this nutty behavior on Saul's part compromised the efforts of the other inmates to deal with their terrible situation in a rational matter that offered some real hope instead of Saul's delusionally and emotionally based actions that were totally empty acts.

The conflict here is between rational attempts toward success as demonstrated by the other inmates as a group, and Saul's impeding their efforts with his individual selfish and psychotic actions that only provide for his temporary emotional (but no real lasting) fulfillment.

Not sure why the critics, or anyone else, loved this one.
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Hard-hitting movie experience
Ruben Mooijman11 November 2015
This movie starts completely out of focus - literally. The viewer sees only vague shapes moving around. Is this a technical error or an experiment gone wrong? Nothing of the kind. After a while, the face of lead character Saul Auslander moves close to the camera - and into focus.

And it stays this way. In the first few minutes, the camera stays within a range of 50 centimeters from Saul's face. Or I should say: Saul's head - because sometimes we see only the side or the back of his head.

The effect of this style of filming is no less than spectacular. All kinds of things are happening around Saul. Horrible things, we soon learn. But we never get to see them close by. We only see shapes, out of focus, at the extreme fringes of the screen, and we hear the sounds. And we keep seeing his face, in focus. He moves around, works, does things, and all the while all we see is his face.

Soon we understand where he is: in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul belongs to a Sonderkommando, a group of Jews who are temporarily spared from death to do the labour the Germans don't want to do. In the midst of the terrible atrocities, it becomes his mission to bury a boy he believes is his son.

This film is unique in showing the concentration camp for what is is: hell on earth. Naked dead bodies being dragged around, desperate people being shot indiscriminately, complete absence of anything humanity stands for. It is exactly this total loss of dignity that drives Saul in his hopeless quest for a way to organize a proper burial for the dead boy.

Son of Saul is the complete antithesis of that other monumental Holocaust movie: Schindler's List. While Spielberg's film is made according to all the rules of good film making, Son of Saul is a claustrophobic trip, without any possible concession to commercial appeal. The dialogue is often hardly comprehensible, spoken in three languages, sometimes not louder than a whisper. Not all the acts and events are quite clear, and only after a while you understand what exactly drives Saul.

This is a unique, hard-hitting movie experience. When you go see it, don't expect a well-rounded story with heroes and villains and a nice ending. But expect to be swept away.
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