Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari) — or, Barbarians, as we will refer to it — made its debut in early 2018 at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, after which it was picked up by several film festivals around the world, including Film Fest GhentThe movie is distributed by Beta Cinema (we are grateful for the screener copy they provided for this article) but has not yet been scheduled for a release in Belgium., where it was part of the thirteen films that were selected for the official competition.
It deals with the hardships the Rumanian director Mariana (Iona Iacob) faces, when she tries to stage a grand outdoor historical pageant, based on the massacre of Jews by Rumanian forces in 1941. At its heart, the movie deals with questions concerning the (im)possibility of art (and film art in particular) to deal with the representation of (wartime) history, the specific problems of re-enactment, the relative value of facts in public memory and the moral minefield that needs to be navigated when trying to depict sometimes unspeakable acts of terror such as the holocaust.
Barbarians raises issues about the way cultural and historical memory is shaped and maintained and about the role of art and other media in this process. The medium of film is also a part of this process, which is governed just as much by art, popular media and other forms of shared cultural experiences, as it is by historical facts or numbers.
The Darwinism of Massacres
We will start by taking a quick look at the movie’s storyline, singling out some salient moments we will address later. While this part may contain what some would consider to be ‘spoilers’, there’s no such thing as suspense building at work in Jude’s movie and knowing where the film is headed does in no way take away from the powerful viewing experience that Barbarians offers. Still, we are aware of the fact that some readers might be interested in discovering the movie for themselves (it is included in the program of the upcoming Rotterdam Film Festival), so we’ll try to be as forthcoming as possible, given the issues we’d like to tackle.
At the start of the movie, the viewer is welcomed by Mariana herself, who introduces both the character and herself, the actress Iona Iacob, in an almost Godardian metaplay on the art of making movies. This breaking of the ‘fourth wall’ is a strong opening statement by Jude (who wrote the script himself), signalling an early emphasis on the artifice of the film medium and its relation to reality. In the first few scenes we will get to know Mariana as a self-conscious and head-strong director, who takes historical accuracy, artistic integrity and emotional truth, very very seriously. We see her choosing props from military museum displays, chastising an elderly extra for not being aware of the emotional resonance that his cries of terror are supposed to carry, reading a book chapter about the terrors of the Jewish camps and arguing with her sometimes-lover about the historical accuracy of the movie Oglinda (1994) that depicts the trial of Field Marshal Antonescu.
Barbarians continues to use this fragmented narrative (with images of the bathing female protagonist bookending all chapters), building its main story line out of chronological fragments that ultimately lead towards the actual performance that Mariana is preparing. That performance is a large-scale public pageant/re-enactment/spectacle, based on the massacre of Jews in Odessa. Rumanian and German troops acted together in what turned out to be a grisly glimpse of things to come. Because Romania ultimately chose to oppose the Nazis, this dark chapter in the country’s history is almost forgotten, a historical error Mariana wants to correct.
This ideological and intellectual endeavour is however, not appreciated by all. Some of the volunteers that are participating in the event as extras oppose her radical demystification of AntonescuThe film’s title is derived from a quote by Antonescu, stating that history would condemn him, but he still believed that he had to seize the opportunity to rid Romania of Jewish presence. It is remarkable how the country seems to have embraced a national amnesia in regard to this brutally blunt speech that instigated the killing of almost 400,000 Jews. and other local heroes and do not hesitate to ventilate their own political views (some of them even plain racist or anti-Semitic). The director also has to deal with the government official Movila (Alexandru Dabija) who approved the funding for the event, but who is trying to prevent Mariana from turning the whole spectacle into a sermon, by curbing her more extreme choices. The fact that this official is not a mindless bureaucrat, but a sharp-witted historian and intellectual himself, results in some exquisite dialogue. The heated debates between him and Mariana are among the film’s best moments.
The first discussion with Movila follows another lengthy discussion at a rehearsal, where the director has a heated argument with a volunteer, who states that re-enactments should be as realistic as possible. At this point Mariana gets angry, telling the extra that she is an artist, while later resorting to facts and realism herself when talking to Movila. Movila goes on to argue that Mariana’s self-proclaimed moral superiority is founded on some very shaky grounds and the desire to provoke. (Jude adds to this by letting the music blur out Mariana at the end of the argument with the extra, when she quotes Wittgenstein yet again, literally ‘shutting her up’.)
“There’s a Darwinism of massacres” Movila claims, stating that the director singles out the Odessa killings because she knows this high profile incident that involves Rumanian wartime heroes will spark controversy among the spectators and a ‘lesser known massacre’ would not. “Ever heard of the 1904 massacre of the Herero by the Germans in Namibia?” Movila asks. Throwing in Wittgenstein again, Riefenstahl and Spielberg, he goes on to warn Mariana that her supposed morality is just as well based on prejudices and preconceptions and has a tendency to single out the most controversial and spectacular incidents: “Nobody wrote Nagasaki, Mon Amour” he concludes, before threatening to take away the funding for the project if Mariana stubbornly keeps refusing to compromise with regard to how far she is willing to go in adhering to what she claims are “the historical facts”.
This discussion returns hours before the actual staging takes place and when Movila is about to shut down the whole production, Mariana seemingly agrees not to show the actual execution of the Jewish prisoners. We already know however that she secretly convinced some actors to show the execution anyway, at the risk of the show being halted during the actual performance. When the pageant starts however, Mariana is shocked to learn that the audience actually applauds the atrocities, cheers for the German soldiers and boos the Russians and even ‘captures’ the actor playing an escaped Jew, who runs into the crowd. It seems national cultural memory will not be corrected so easily and even though Mariana gets her execution — in a moment eerily reminiscent of the burning of a barn in Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Idi i smotri (1985) — and Movila brushes her rebellion aside “because he likes a little artistic disobedience”, in the end all the intellectual vigour, discussions and talk about correcting the historical misconception surrounding the role of the Rumanian army during WWII seems utterly futile. The spectacle has been absorbed by the cultural memory as no more than just another element in a larger process.
On a formal level, Radu Jude mainly uses long shots and medium long shots (most of them with a very mobile handheld camera), switching from 16mm film to video for the final scenes, those of the actual performance, an aesthetic choice that is reminiscent of television and that adds to the suggestion of capturing and registering the event supposedly on the spot, thus strengthening the movie’s self reflexive element and the interplay between stressing the artifice of the medium (and the media portrayed in it) and the illusion of ‘reality’ that comes with the formal approach. The choice to break through the illusion of the mimesis, circles back to an emphasis on the reality of the ‘medium’ — the artistic reality — not the so-called ‘realism’ of a naturalistic approach. Mariana is trying to obtain both, not acknowledging the contradictions inherent to this attempt.
While it is clear that Jude is not dealing with light-hearted subject matter in Barbarians, it works wonders for the movie that he still manages to add delightful touches of grim wit to the discussions and events, sometimes bringing to mind Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H (1972). In the memorable final act, the tragedy even becomes a full-fledged comedy, underscoring Barbarians’ status of a self-conscious, intelligent work of art that echoes the oeuvre of contemporary artists such as Guillaume Bijl, in the way it allows humour and irony to interact with the formal language of the artwork.
Memory and History
One of the central themes in Barbarians is the question of how art not only deals with the concept of war, but also how national traumas caused by wartime hardships that have entered the collective memory of a nation can be captured by a work of art. Visual arts (one can’t help but think of Goya’s haunting paintings such as The third of May) that deal with these subjects, have always elicited mixed feelings, but the atrocities of the holocaust seem to belong to a different category altogetherActually, ethnic cleansing and genocide in general are the most sensitive subjects to be translated into any art form: just look at how differently films such as Zvizdan (Dalibor Matanić, 2015), Pred Dozhdot (Milčo Mančevski, 1994) or Chris the Swiss (Anja Kofmel, 2018) deal with the more recent events of mass murder and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia.. While there is definitely no lack of national monuments and museums celebrating the military efforts of WWII (or WWI for that matter), doing the same for victims of the holocaust always comes down to a balancing act that pays respect both to the victims and to the mixed emotions of lingering guilt, denial and mystification that surround the public memory of nations that are looked upon as ‘perpetrators’. Historical facts are often shaped to fit an overarching narrative that exempt a nation or people from active participation in the horrors, as is the case with the emphasis on the fact that Romania near the end of the war opposed the German army, thus obscuring the earlier collaboration between the Rumanian leaders and Nazi Germany.
In her book Belgian Museums of the Great War, Politics, Memory and Commerce, which deals with the commemorative activities in Belgium linked to the centenary of WWI, Karen Shelby quotes the French historian Pierre Nora and his ontological distinction between ‘Memory’ and ‘History’. For Nora, memory is always in permanent evolution and — according to Shelby — always subject to appropriation, manipulation and negotiation. History might seem like an objective counterpart, but is itself always subject to reconstruction and representation. This is something Movila hints at when he tells Mariana that her “argument from authority” based on books and historians is no more valuable than other arguments. “You weren’t there” he says, and in reply she invokes — coming up painfully short — the Christian bible, obviously an extreme example in itself of cultural construction and manipulation.
Shelby also refers to philosopher Maurice Halbwachs’ statement that human memory always functions in a collective context and that social groups are the framework on which these memories are based: “collected memories are assigned meaning — selective recollection joined together for public use.” (We are quoting several passages here, all from Shelby’s book.) It should be abundantly clear that these memories are not solely collected from historical facts, figures or studies, but just as well from cultural outings such as books, movies etc. (“People should not learn history from movies” Mariana complains, bypassing the fact that she does want them to learn it from her spectacle.) In this way the movie Oglinda is just as much an element in this process as any historical account or ideological and political influence.
Shelby points out (citing Donald Preziozi) that the narrative of a war museum is structured through ritual (even more so in the era of digital touchscreens that present personal accounts, animations etc.). The same goes for movies, plays or re-enactments, the last one a medium of which Movila states somewhat vaguely that “it is only meant to honour the soldiers”. Re-enactments also construct a narrative, using ritualistic elements, but — much like museums — stake a claim to a certain realism that fails to respect the artifice that comes with the medium. Actually, Movila is right when he tells the director that a re-enactment is not meant to be a history lesson and serves other purposes, as professor Shelby points out, “(…) loss of individuality is part of the process (…) soldiers are honoured in death, but subsumed into their service to the nation — the idea being to make an unpleasant past meaningful”. The specific nature of the re-enactment raises ethical issues: we see Mariana jokingly discuss choice of props in the afternoon sun, wearing shorts — a light-hearted approach that contrasts with the atrocities she is portraying, merely camouflaged by her belief that intellectual honesty and respect for the historical facts erase any moral or ethical issues at hand. At the same time she also fails to recognise the blurred line between fact and the fiction that is used to convey the historical elements.
In the 21st century, most museums dedicated to (a) war, have become more or less re-enactments, with digital ‘tableaux vivants’The closest predecessor to the multimedia spectacle of the modern museum are the 19th century ‘panoramas’ that also immersed the viewer into the spectacle of the battlefield. replacing the out-dated displays of uniforms and weapons, thus re-creating the spectacle and horrors of war and setting up what Shelby labels ‘A Living History’ for the spectator. In this way museums, movies, commemorative events, re-enactments and other media outlets (literature, news, internet…) all blend into one and create an ever expanding nexus that constitutes the basis for what could be considered ‘the general cultural memory’ of a war event, which does create a (possible and negotiable) meaning for the ‘unpleasant past’ Shelby mentions.
This meaning can take on a shape that is different from history, setting up a bifurcated model that distinguishes between ‘memory’ and ‘remembrance’ (Shelby corrects and expands Nora’s claim here). As illustrated extensively in Belgian Museums of the Great War, Politics, Memory and Commerce, we cannot actually remember events from the war at hand (most of us can’t anyway) so ‘memory’ is a delicate term to use here. This memory has not been shaped by actual events, but by the mediated form of those events. Shelby labels this process ‘remembrance’; it denotes an active negotiation between historical fact, mediated forms and political backgrounds, that shape the way the public consciousness appropriates or rejects certain elements within a narrative that is no longer strictly tied to historical factuality. The impossible adherence to this historical factuality leads to the almost absurd discussion about ‘realism’ in re-enactments, wherein Mariana dismisses the claims of a stubborn extra about the realistic approach, by stating that in re-enactments people don’t actually die or get wounded. Meanwhile she herself picks up uniforms from the storage room that were used for a film about a Zombie war movie (it’s called Zombie vs. Wehrmacht, but it probably refers to Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 blood fest Dead Snow) with the ridiculous question if the costumes are authentic.
What happens in Barbarians is a crossing and blurring of the line between ‘memory’ and ‘remembrance’: Mariana wants to educate (“It’s an illusion that you can educate them” Movila warns her), offer a ‘realistic’ experience and at the same time create an artistic mediation of the war event (“this is stylized” she says). Her dedication to both historical fact and the process of ‘remembrance’ as defined by Shelby, makes for a very uneasy combination. “I am not doing a military re-enactment, but a show using re-enactment” Mariana states, thus capturing the essence of the problem she has created for herself. It is this impossible merging of ‘memory’ and ‘remembrance’ that is at the heart of the conflict Mariana faces in setting up her production. There are echoes of Antonin Artaud’s idea of ‘the theatre of cruelty’ in what Mariana is trying to achieve: making the public take part in the memory, through what Artaud described as “the theatre that should be a double of life”.
Mariana should, however, have heeded the warning Walter Benjamin gave in On the Concept of History, Benjamin being one of the authors whose shadow looms large over Barbarians: “There has never been a document of culture which is (…) not free of the process of transmission. (…) To articulate what is past does not mean to ‘recognize how it really was’. It means to take control of a memory (…).” What Mariana is trying, is to go back to the actual memory, while she should realise that any medium will only offer a ‘mediated’ or ‘transmitted’ transformation.
Benjamin’s statement also conjures up Theodor Adorno’s ideas on the ‘museum as mausoleum’: museums (and the modern form of re-enactment they have become) build walls between the past and the present, presenting war, war crimes and war history through enumerated artefacts and figures, neatly confining them to a distant past. As Shelby pointed out, re-enactments function in exactly the same way. Art, on the other hand, tries to break through these walls, at least if — contrary to what Mariana is trying — it acknowledges that it is not fact, but a medium that transforms the memory. So this is the question raised by Barbarians’ own identity as a work of art: is film as an art (a medium) fit to do so or not? Put differently: is Radu Jude walking into the same trap as Mariana?
Art as a Vehicular Medium for the Concept of War
Mariana’s effort to educate the public via a large spectacle suffers — as laid out above — from a poor choice of medium. One could ask the same question about the art of film (and art in general). Is art capable of dealing with a public trauma such as the monstrosities of war? Or, to channel this idea into a question one hears more often: is it possible to capture the horrors of the holocaust within the format of a movie and is it even something one should strive for?
There’s no lack of movies generally regarded as classics that deal with the subject of war and are praised for the way they deal with feelings of anxiety, horror, fear, desperation … Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) or Nobi (Kon Ichikawa, 1959), are but a few examples that are part of a canonical list of war movies (or at least movies with the subject of war at their core). The matter becomes subject to a lot more controversy when the movie at hand deals with the holocaust. While Spielberg’s Schindler’s ListIncidentally, Kinepolis Group is re-releasing the movie in Belgium on January 27th, 2019. (1993) won countless awards, the movie was criticized for ‘romanticising’ the holocaust and while László Nemes’ Saul Fia (2015) was heralded as a masterpiece, one will just as well find critical and scholarly opinion that rejects the movie as being manipulative. The larger public clearly enjoyed the depiction of the holocaust in La vita è bella (Roberto Benigni, 1997), while most critics dismissed it. How then, do the different ways of handling the atrocities of the holocaust in Schindler’s List, Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), Saul Fia and Idi i smotri compare to the approach Radu Jude used for Barbarians?
When Steven Spielberg finally secured his first Academy Award as a director for Schindler’s List (along with 6 more Oscars), he was met with applause for a movie that was considered one of the towering achievements in an already impressive career. Still, there were many voices who claimed that Spielberg had turned the holocaust into a manipulative melodrama and the question raised once again was: “is a film able to capture the true horrors of the holocaust?”
One has to pause and realize that this is a rather peculiar question. It is a question about the fundamental ability of art to convey concepts and it also singles out the events of the holocaust as a very special item to be dealt with. One could argue — as Movila does in Barbarians — about whether it is morally just to say that one genocide is more cruel than another, but it is safe to state that the killing of millions of Jews by the Nazis during WWII is without any doubt a subject that should be approached with great caution and respect when it is being dealt with in any medium or art form.
Still, the question remains why film is considered to be the wrong medium to handle this delicate matter. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is widely regarded as the landmark film when it comes to the subject of the holocaust. It is listed however as a documentary and that seems to put it into a different category for most critics. We believe that approach is flat out wrong. Even if one chooses to look at Shoah as strictly a documentary, the problem arises that documentaries make a claim on ‘realism’ that is not always justified. We believe that fiction can sometimes lay bare a deeper ‘truth’ than the factualism of a documentary. But one shouldn’t even adhere to the division of fiction and documentary film as different categories: the documentary format has — as far back as the works of Robert Flaherty and Jean Rouch — never belonged into some sort of subcategory of film making. A director making a documentary film uses exactly the same tools as any movie director does. Shoah is a definite example of this: a director choosing to ‘reincarnate’ (to use Lanzmann’s own words) the tragedy, rather than reconstructing it through archive material. That means that even though critics still go to great lengths to emphasize the fact that Shoah should not be put into the same category as e.g. Schindler’s List, we strongly disagree with this point of view. Lanzmann chose to recreate the horrors of the holocaust through a series of interviews with survivors, creating a haunting picture in the process. The choices that Nemes, Spielberg or Klimov made may have been different, but in the end, all of them chose from the same available palette the artist that is conceiving a movie has at his or her disposal.
When we take a closer look at Schindler’s List, the choices Steven Spielberg made are crystal clear. Here is a director, working at the height of his career, wielding his craft with the absolute precision and ease of a master, who is channelling all his creative forces into translating an idea (the horrors of the holocaust) to the movie format he has been working with throughout his whole career. The brilliant opening scene in which Oskar Schindler ‘works’ the room filled with Nazi officials, is actually a perfect pars pro toto for the whole movie: all the technical skill and directorial refinement of the American studio film, at the height of its potential. Spielberg does indeed choose a form he has mastered to precision, but the choice to do so, is just as valid as the technical challenge László Nemes set himself for Saul Fia. Schindler’s List contains extreme dramatization and well-tested story telling techniques, but as David Bordwell argued in Reinventing Hollywood, using the templates the American studio film developed, does not necessarily mean a lack of creativity. It can give talented directors a set of parameters they are able either to bend into new surprising forms, or tune to absolute perfection (something Spielberg does in our opinion, with Schindler’s List). It is this idea that Mariana refuses to embrace in Barbarians: although she is willing to use the formal language of a spectacle that thrives on dramatized moments and imagery, she is not willing to accept its limits. As argued, these limits have to do with the process of transmission and sublimation that is inherent to every (good) work of art, and with the fact that art creates — in essence — an ‘artifice’. Schindler’s List accepts those limits and uses them as a template that allows the combination of craft and creativity to flower into more than the sum of its parts. Mariana’s show turns into a hybrid form, trying to combine — as pointed out above — memory, remembrance and the transitional aspect of a medium. As a quick aside, we’d like to mention La vita è bella, a film that aims for the same approach Spielberg is using, but fails on all accounts, thus turning the holocaust into the empty spectacle Mariana is trying to avoid ending up with.
The Hungarian director László Nemes chooses a very different approach in Saul Fia: he locks the viewer within the field of vision of the main character (a so-called ‘Sondern Kommando’, a Jew that was commissioned to work fort he camp guards), using the 1.37:1 academic ratio for an experiment in extreme ‘point of view’, allowing only off-screen sounds and brief flashes of the environment to enter the movie. Lots of people will tell you they prefer Nemes’ movie to Spielberg’s because of its “artistic qualities and its honest and brutal portrayal that does not try to dramatize.” We believe such a point of view is subject to exactly what David Bordwell is referring to when he states that it is ‘plainly a mistake’ to think of American studio films as being artistically less interesting and just a product of an ‘assembly-line’ output. Using an analogy, Bordwell compares a director working within that system to “painters’ ateliers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” We are not trying to mount yet another argument for the merits of Schindler’s List versus Saul Fia, we’d only like to point out that both directors took a different approach, choosing from the available options, trying to translate the subject of the holocaust into an art medium.
That is also true for Elem Klimov, the Russian director who was — surprisingly, given his uneasy relationship with the Soviet government at the time — asked to deliver a commemorative film, marking the anniversary of the Russian victory over the German forces. Film critic Patrick Duynslaegher stated “Klimov clearly thought that the best way to honour the victims, was by making the viewers suffer themselves and he succeeds in doing so.” Klimov chose yet another approach for his haunting masterpiece Idi i smotri: he combines estrangement effects (verfremdungseffekt) with an idiosyncratic use of audio-visual language that he drives to extremes in the almost unbearable final act, which shows the slaughter of hundreds of innocent villagers by the German army. (As mentioned earlier, one cannot but think of this scene when watching the illusion of the burning barn that Mariana stages at the end of her production.) Frankly, we can think of no other movie that manages to draw the viewer into the raw horror of the almost mechanically executed killings that Walter Benjamin described as the machine-like process that was at the core of the Nazi executions during WW II.
If we look at these three films, we see three directors that chose a different path to convey the same conceptual ideas. Barbarians chooses yet another: to reflect upon the way (film) art deals with these concepts. Radu Jude’s film is actually a work about the choices directors/artists make when transforming a concept into art and how these choices may lead to failure or success.
Barbarians is also a testament to the powers of sublimation that reside within every true work of art. Even though the film focuses on the pitfalls and sometimes impossibility of finding a perfect answer, it does testify to the limitless options an artist has to arrive at a sublimation of the ideas he or she is working with, channelled through the medium of the art form (in this case: film). Answering whether film is a medium capable of grasping the horrors of the holocaust is a void question in our opinion: any art medium has the power to transcend and sublimate. ‘Sublimate’ obviously links it to Arthur Schopenhauer’s definition of ‘the sublime’ that needs to be filtered through the language of art in order to be grasped by the human mind, but is also linked to the literal definition of ‘sublimation’: to render something into an acceptable form. We think it is this process that is at the heart of Barbarians: finding a way to sublimate a concept into a medium.
At the same time, there seems to be a warning hidden within: recycling these concepts endlessly through any form of media will ultimately strip them of any meaning or truth. The film is filled with technical media that keep recycling war atrocities: television, digital databases, sound tapes, montage platforms, photographic evidence — which Mariana at one point even appropriates to coach some child extras —, but also projections and finally the spectators of Mariana’s show filming it with their smartphones. These recycling media strip concepts of their true meaning, culminating in Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreality’ that has no more meaning or essence, only an endless stream of empty simulacra that define no more than each other’s perceived meaning (there is even a quick nod to Baudrillard’s ideas when Mariana and a self-professed expert on re-enactment quarrel about ‘realism’ and Mariana talks about “the map not being the territory itself”). Art (and film is still an art form) transcends and deepens, superficial media recycle and ultimately destroy meaning and significance.
“I Do Not Care if we go Down in History as Barbarians” successfully sublimates — being an artwork itself — different questions on how to represent the traumas of the past through different media and art forms. Mariana incarnates the duality and difficulty of on the one hand the need to stay true to factual history and thus to evoke ‘memory’, and on the other hand the attempt to create a ‘remembrance’ trough a cultural presentation, the re-enactment. Through the museology of war, through the presence of the artificial wall between present and past and through the contradictions inherent in Mariana’s effort, the film shows us how the representation of war always is ‘transmitted’, mediated and culturally appropriated. The film in itself is thus a document of culture as Benjamin put it. What makes Barbarians a success is its self-reflexive power, its constant ironic undertone and its stubborn style. The metaplay that is Barbarians evokes not only the medium of film, but broadens its horizon by questioning many different art forms, in a fragmented narrative culminating in what can only be described as a hilarious but at the same time tragical anti-climax. The playful use of different cameras emphasises the artistic reality of the medium as Jude successfully breaks through the illusion of mimesis in his film. Without trying to directly evoke the horrors of the war and the holocaust, Barbarians reflects upon the way art(film) deals with this concept rather than its depiction or mimesis.
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