Werner Herzog Essay - Critical Essays

Herzog, Werner


Werner Herzog 1942–

German director and screenwriter.

Herzog is one of the leading figures to emerge from a creative revival in German cinema during the past decade. His films express his fascination with the uncommon and the freakish, seeking to make central in art what is usually eccentric in life and society, claiming artistic rights to a marginal territory. An insane soldier in South America, rioting dwarfs in the Canary Islands, and a man brought up in the confinement of a cellar in Germany are some of the characters and locales defining Herzog's dark cinematic world. "I make films to rid myself of them, like ridding myself of a nightmare," states Herzog.

Herzog's use of far-flung locations in his films, including Crete, the Sahara Desert, and Guadalupe, is patterned very much after his own life. At fourteen he left home and set out for Albania, reaching Greece and later visiting the Sudan. Herzog also traveled to the United States, where he worked in a steel factory, rode in a rodeo, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. At this time he made his first film shorts, one of which features a rooster as the central character. His first full-length film, Signs of Life, introduces situations of madness and isolation which would come to be enduring thematic concerns. This film and the later Woyzeck are based upon works by nineteenth-century German authors, and Herzog himself has been described by critics as a nineteenth-century romantic for the turbulence of his cinematic subjects. A further connection to the past is evident in Herzog's best-known work, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, or The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, which derives from a true historical incident in the early nineteenth century. Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes place in the historical context of a still earlier era but nonetheless shares in the mood of desperation and turmoil common to Herzog's films.

Herzog turned to the history of cinema for the subject of one of his most recent efforts, Nosferatu, the Vampyre. The film is a tribute to F. W. Murnau's expressionist masterpiece of the same title, and this supernatural story of a deathless evil harmonizes particularly well with Herzog's work thus far. From hypnotizing his actors for Heart of Glass to featuring a deaf and blind woman in Land of Silence and Darkness, Herzog consistently pursues new ways of probing the extremes of human experience. Though Herzog's films are occasionally censured for depicting abnormal subjects considered irrelevant to the mainstream of life, more often the German filmmaker is commended for presenting the unfamiliar and the bizarre with compelling relevancy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92)

A. H. Weiler

["Signs of Life"] is true to its title and its theme of destructive boredom that only climactically forces its principals into explosive action. But as an apparent parable set in a peaceful Grecian backwash of World War II it is almost metaphysically obscure as allegory, even though its characterizations and intentions are as honest as its impressively authentic pastoral backgrounds.

Using the Dodecanese island of Cos, Werner Herzog … proves to be strikingly effective as a director if not altogether convincing as an allegorist. These are indeed mere placid signs of life he has captured in a dozing microcosm of whitewashed houses, lapping waves on a pebbled shore, a moldering bastion, broken ancient Greek statuary, meadows, mountains and listless people, young and old, bathed in enervating heat and sunlight.

Against this area touched but not struck by war, he has focused on three German soldiers (and the Greek wife of one of them) who go about the daily stultifying business of guarding a repository of ammunition in a crumbling fortress. The essence of their mounting ennui is dissected in a series of seemingly unconnected scenes….

Mr. Herzog has failed to make his harried hero's case or his parable believable. Otherwise, his "Signs of Life" provides vivid signs of considerable talent and promise.

A. H. Weiler, "'Signs of Life'," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1968, p. 60.

Tony Rayns

Werner Herzog's [Fata Morgana] takes the reductio ad absurdum narrative patterns of his other films to their logical conclusion by dispensing with narrative altogether…. Individually, many of the shots have a great formal beauty; and the visual juxtaposition of elements from both Western and indigenous cultures (huge aircraft touching down and cadavers of animals decaying where they dropped; distant oil flares and decrepit shanty housing) yields frequent surrealist shocks in line with André Breton's most polemic requirements. Herzog makes no attempt to structure this material through montage; the film has no visual rhythm, and no cut infers any direct meaning. Rather, he adopts a mock-heroic form that divides the film into three sections: The Creation, Paradise, and The Golden Age. Each is accompanied by an occasional voice-over narration, which alters its stance as the film proceeds from aloof omnipotence to bitter engagement. Just as Stroszek in Lebenszeichen [Signs of Life] disappears from the film at the midpoint, his paroxysm visible only through its effects, so here the entire film is 'effects', visual evidence to the aftermath of some previous action. The first section, composed chiefly of mirage-like stares into the desert void and racing aerial shots of the landscape slipping past, is accompanied by an account of the Creation (supposedly drawn from ancient Persian myth, but probably as spurious as the narrator's log in...

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Richard Combs

Where [Herzog's] later films have located the history of man in a terrain and on a time scale all their own (the terminal ward of Even Dwarfs Started Small, the desert myths of Fata Morgana), Lebenszeichen … extracts a similar meditation from a specific historical situation and a not unfamiliar plot format. Wounded in Crete during the Second World War, good soldier Stroszek is removed from the fighting and left to heal in the sultry, dulling climate of a non-combat zone. In the 'time out of war' situation, his physical wound becomes an opening on the frightening illogic of his situation, the absurdity of not just the war but of all the artefacts of human existence which stand petrified around him. Herzog gives peculiar weight to the initial 'accident' of the wounding of Stroszek: "It occurred during a lull in the fighting, in a village held by the Germans", the narrator comments, and a long, swooping camera track through deserted, sun-baked streets makes an abrupt turn and comes upon two uniformed bodies, flicking away instantly to stare idly down another empty street, before returning briefly to the evidence of this glancing intrusion of death. Having been brought so close, and so inappropriately, to extinction, Stroszek's convalescence is clouded by a growing, oppressive sense that existence itself may be no more than an absurd accident; the signs of life are drenched with associations—all the family possessions which Stroszek finds...

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Tony Rayns

All Werner Herzog's fictions evince a fascination with the mechanisms of human madness—especially those engendered by the will to power—and yet the uniquely disturbing quality of his movies seems to spring less from this consistent theme than from a central ambivalence. Like one who at once observes and participates, Herzog balances between two positions, offering both lucid analyses of chaotic situations (undertaken in a spirit not unlike that of scientific research) and hallucinatory, seductive visions that plunge his audience into active experience of the irrational.

The analytic strain is, of course, a modernist trait; it yields the entomological metaphors of Signs of Life, the dislocations of physical scale in Even Dwarfs Started Small, and the entirety of Fata Morgana as a catalogue of the debris left in the wake of a 'drama' already played out, the latter establishing an improbable rapport between Herzog and certain contemporary avant-garde film-makers. The strain of irrationality, though, draws on a very much older tradition; it conjures the dark undertow of the German Romantics, immanent in many of Casper David Friedrich's landscapes and explicit in a novella like Eichendorff's archetypal Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, where the 'hero' is forever on the point of succumbing to mysterious forces that he senses in the forests and lakes around him. In Herzog's case, the point is the balance itself; it might alternatively be characterised as the ability to infect 'realism' with expressionism and vice versa, without any overriding commitment to either mode….

[Aguirre, Wrath of God] is something of a departure for Herzog…. Herzog has used it to engage—for the first time—in a specific historical reconstruction, although the action, like the diary on which it purports to be based, is his own invention. (p. 56)


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Richard Combs

As a well-formed narrative, in fact moving along at times like Hollywood costume drama with a message to deliver about vaulting ambition, Aguirre, Wrath of God has all the beguiling simplicity of Werner Herzog's first feature, Lebenszeichen. Both are situated in clear historical periods (and in the general context of an invader being gradually driven mad by an aggravated 'cultural shock'—a social and metaphysical displacement), both concern individuals who decide that to cease obeying orders is the key to personal exaltation and to reversing history altogether, and in both, the events that are set in motion by this decision finally wear away the narrative and the hero, obliterating the...

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Derek Elley

[In Aguirre, Wrath of God] Herzog paints his most ambitious canvas…. No blockbuster this, however, despite some imposing set-pieces Herzog's manageable cast is fairly small and it is not long before the paranoid Aguirre dominates proceedings and script alike. (p. 38)

Herzog is at pains throughout to show the reality of the expedition behind the glamorous legend: cannons trundling through muddy swamps, raging rivers to be crossed, sudden death from darts or arrows from the Indians following on the river bank. The metaphor of the journey itself for Aguirre's breakdown is obviously but painlessly applied, and Herzog's film, not at all to its detriment, can be compared with the similar...

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David L. Overbey

Although [Every Man for Himself and God Against All] begins with an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute asking 'Is love the answer?' and ends in the same aria with 'Yes, love is the answer,' this musical parenthesis cannot be denied certain irony. 'Love' is, after all, the non-ironic solution given in several films which at first glance seem to parallel Every Man for Himself. In both Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage and Penn's The Miracle Worker, it is assumed that 'love and patience' will bring salvation to the deprived children. Perhaps it is because they are children, however, that their salvation through education is never questioned. Both films end with the sentimental device of an...

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Pauline Kael

[In "The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser"] Werner Herzog has achieved a visionary, overcast style. The higgledy-piggledy pink and blue roofs of the town of Dinkelsbühl … suggest the world of a German primitive painter, or of an awkward, self-taught puppeteer who has gone a little haywire. The gentle farmlands have something ominous hovering in the atmosphere, and even normal domestic scenes are airless and oppressive. The estrangement is poignant. Herzog's images look off-balance, crooked, as if the cameraman were wincing; there are distances, large vistas, but the perspectives aren't inviting. The universe is enclosed in an invisible hand. Caught in that grip, nobody seems warmblooded; everyone is alone, immobilized,...

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Jay Cocks

[Every Man for Himself and God Against All] is a casebook of insensitivity. Every character is vigorously and grossly caricatured. The short supply of ideas is presented with all the insight of a caption in Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Herzog … is a sort of social anthropologist manqué who has been prominent in the perennially fizzling resurgence of the West German cinema. It has been suggested that in Every Man Herzog is struggling to create a new metaphor for the state of modern Germany. This is one of those facile, coverall apologies, like saying an Italian film is a thinly disguised attack on the Roman Catholic Church, or a novel about contemporary Ireland reflects...

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Penelope Gilliatt

["Stroszek"] is a brilliant, poetic film about a man's clutch on a difficult existence. Stroszek's story shows us the bitterness of exile, and the rewards of concentration on singular tasks misapprehended by the common run. He could strike only those in step as a man of folly. And, in Scheitz, Herzog has created one of the most fragile and sweet-natured characters to be seen in any contemporary European movie: a man of infinite mental fortitude and physical frailty, who could be blown away like a skeletal leaf. Herzog has made a funny, very serious film about a tonic sort of nobility practiced in territory as foreign to his characters' cast of mind as the world is to the premature baby's. (pp. 74, 77)


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Robert Hatch

Werner Herzog is belligerently romantic in an age subservient to plausibility. Whereas other directors build their fictions, however extreme or grotesque, with the mortar of cause and effect, he invokes his tales with a magic wand. I think, though, that he does so because he is not only romantic but impatient. He sees a truth, is eager to share it and cannot pause to touch each base along the way. Thus in Stroszek … he needs to get his quite moneyless people from Germany to America. So he sends Eva, a street whore, down to the warehouse district of Berlin where, in five quick tricks, she gets the plane fares from some Turkish "guest workers," as the Germans call them. Never mind that Turks on temporary visas...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[Werner Herzog's Stroszek] continues one of his favorite themes: craziness in and of our world…. Stroszek is a young man, not quite competent mentally, who is battered by today's Germany and who emigrates to the US with two other battered people—a young whore and a very old man—looking for refuge with the old man's American nephew in Wisconsin.

The picture splits in more than setting. The German half is a broodingly taut, if somewhat trite account of the bullying of the helpless Stroszek by two burly pimps because he has befriended their abused whore. Herzog handles this section easily, taciturnly. But strain runs through the American section. The ease is gone, and what we get is a...

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

Werner Herzog should be thought of as a kind of seer, perhaps even something of a mystic. Only then does the nonsense begin to make sense in his films. Those films are a peculiar combination of an impulse both to comprehend all of life and at the same time to respect its incomprehensibility. The result is films that are like parables. The only way Herzog can embrace life fully enough is to deal with it in a symbolic and anagogical way instead of a literal one. Rather than the explanation of a particular situation, his films are revelations of the general. The colony of dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small or the African desert in Fata Morgana are microcosms of all creation. They suggest everything while...

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Janet Maslin

[La Soufrière] is one of Werner Herzog's most exquisite efforts, a perfect distillation of his talents…. [The] film is a serene, strangely clear-headed documentary about the end of the world….

"Heart of Glass" [is] a feature by Mr. Herzog that is far less successful. Mr. Herzog hypnotized his entire cast to film a parable about a medieval town that has thrived by producing ruby-colored glass, until the only man who knows the formula dies….

In its own way, "Heart of Glass" is as much about the end of the world as is "La Soufrière," but ["Heart of Glass"] is much less accessible, and often obscure. The actors' trance is contagious, and the film has some genuinely...

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Jan Dawson

Herzog's power as a film-maker has always been primarily a visionary one. Nature, untamed and sometimes even uncharted, has provided the cosmic hot-house in which his awesome visions have best flowered; 'civilisation', where he has treated it, has appeared as an arrogant illusion, a Babel-tower of foolish human ambition; and his heroes, victims of and outcasts from that civilised social norm, have lived their deformed and misshaped lives in some pale, Platonic shadow of the State of Nature. Which state, though awesomely aspiring, is hardly a cheering one. It proclaims the transience, the nothingness of human endeavours, and the greater glory of a universe which yields its secrets only to those who submit to the...

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Karen Jaehne

Stroszek is neatly divided between the old world of Berlin shadows and the new world, lying under one mammoth shadow. When Bruno S. is released from prison, he seems to be just rounding the track of another relay race. 'It all moves in circles,' he shouts, above the mild admonitions of a functionary at the prison. Bruno's cry has the prophetic tone of all his proclamatory acting in Herzog's films. The movement within the film then fulfils Bruno's worst fears: from prison to freedom and back again has until now been the pattern, and when Berlin's working class district, Kreuzberg, proves to be a static ghetto of static violence, Bruno tries to widen the circle to extend to the shores of American freedom. The...

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Philip Strick

[Herzog's Nosferatu—The Vampyre] is concerned not with Bram Stoker but with F. W. Murnau…. (p. 127)

From Murnau's images, Herzog creates his own: the magnificent staging of the plague ship taking aboard its deadly cargo, and the helicopter shot of its course across a placid sea;… the brief, astounding glimpse, straight out of Aguirre, of a raft laden with coffins being swept down a torrential river. Finally, Nosferatu shows the plague-carrier galloping across sand-flats on his endless, lethal journey, his continuity praised by a reverential choir on the sound-track: Herzog finds both image and concept equally glorious.

It's a conclusion that confirms the...

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Harlan Kennedy

[Nosferatu] is perhaps the most circumspect, least red-blooded Dracula movie ever made. Herzog's visionary madness needs room to whirl and gesticulate, but here he has straitjacketed himself in his respect for Murnau's 1922 vampire classic. The film is like a silent movie with the titles missing. Individual scenes are full of magic, but there is nothing to propel the story forward.

Herzog scatters the film early on with promising thematic motifs and images, especially when Bruno Ganz's Transylvania-bound hero approaches the Land of Silence and Darkness in which Nosferatu lives, and when the still canals of the Nordic town he has left are exchanged for rushing rivers and sounding cataracts. But...

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Jan-Christopher Horak

Herzog's images are reflections of his inner landscapes. Like those Expressionist filmmakers whose legacy he has inherited, he is possessed by dreams so powerful, they can only be exorcised through cinematic creation. The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Or Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Herzog's mysterious film of a nineteenth-century wild child, can then be seen as a meditation on its subject through a conscious awareness of the classic German film of the Weimar Republic…. (p. 223)

[The] sense of the physicality of nature, of its material reality, and of man's position within it, yet apart from it, seems central to Herzog's personal universe. In previous films such as Signs of...

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David Overby

Herzog has claimed that he wanted [Woyzeck] to look as primitive as the main character, but the film looks not so much simple and primitive as badly made. The images have an inexpensive flat quality, and the editing of the film often ruins what magic there is in the images. The murder sequence in which Woyzeck stabs his prostitute mistress is filmed in extreme slow motion and is hypnotic at first. Unfortunately Herzog rather pointlessly cuts away for a moment to a dance hall, and when he returns to the murder the emotions first engendered have melted away. Woyzeck suffers from the same problems as Nosferatu: lack of life, a lack of atmosphere and far too many rather pretentious speeches (one...

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Andrew Sarris

Woyzeck contains two or three epiphanies involving … [Woyzeck and Marie], and two or three epiphanies is more than you get from all but a handful of film artists in the world. As in Aguirre, Wrath of God, the epiphanies come at the beginning and the end. The problem, as always with Herzog, is in the middle where he is unable to create a cinematically dynamic narrative. Indeed, Herzog is as fragmentary in his ways as Georg Büchner, author of Woyzeck was in his. Moreover, Herzog displays little feeling for fiction, for archetype, for a representation of the world with its normal constituents. Herzog is instead the eccentric par excellence, searching out what differs most radically and most...

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Richard Combs

Herzog has perhaps been assumed (not least by Herzog himself) to be such an original that he doesn't need to be referred to any tradition. And it may be perverse proof of that to find both Nosferatu and Woyzeck awkwardly digesting their given material, and Herzog with more determination than conviction adapting himself to alien dramatic traditions (in what might be seen as an attempt, ironically, to find himself a specifically Germanic home). Whether or not, by switching to adaptations, Herzog has exhausted his 'originality' is another question, but it was probably only a matter of time before this dauntless conquistador should run out of new territories to explore, new landscapes in which to set man...

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Donald Barthelme

In "Nosferatu," Herzog has desexualized the [vampire] story, in two ways: first by a stress on the classic 1922 Murnau version which gives his own film an air of pious recreation, and, second, by a bothersome uncertainty of tone. The film is very much of a piece with his "Woyzeck" …, as if he had set out to make a pair of salon paintings to be placed at either end of some vast museum gallery. Herzog makes abundant references not only to Murnau but to his own previous films. A shot of coffins on a raft immediately recalls the voyaging raft in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God."… (pp. 183-84)

The problem [in "Nosferatu"] is that Herzog was unable to bring new life to his much-handled material. I assume he...

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David Denby

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu is extraordinarily beautiful and also creepy beyond belief. Like F. W. Murnau,… the young German director has made not a conventional horror film (there are no shocks) but an anguished poem of death. The colors are nightmare blue-black, the mood sepulchral and hushed. Herzog sustains long stretches of imagery that work on the imagination and the emotions through vile suggestion rather than explicit enactment…. As always, Herzog holds his actors in static, sculptured poses; his narrative tempo is as poky as ever, his landscapes as placidly sinister. Only this time there's a most explicit reason for everything to be drained of life. Having passed into the realm of myth, Herzog, for...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Herzog clearly feels a special affinity with early 19th-century Germany, the period in which Caspar David Friedrich was the preeminent painter, the period of Kaspar Hauser, of Woyzeck, of Nosferatu. The pellucid air, the dainty neatness of the households, the serenity overlying the anguished idealism, all these engage Herzog's eye and mind. Those qualities and [Jonathan Harker's] encounter with gypsies on his way through wild mountains are the best directorial elements in [Nosferatu]. Herzog seems more at ease with them than with the supposedly macabre sequences in Dracula's castle….

But to detail this picture's accomplishments is finally a sorry business because they...

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Robert Asahina

Herzog's Nosferatu is an esthetic triumph. A feeling of subtle horror practically oozes from the screen—a remarkable achievement, considering that the director managed it with techniques and imagery (the soft-focus pastels) not normally associated with horror films. Yet if this film may be a feast for the eyes, it is dreary for the mind. No amount of directorial prestidigitation can disguise the bareness of the material. One wishes that Herzog had chosen a more worthy vehicle for his talents. (p. 24)

Robert Asahina, "Novels into Films," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 21, November 5,...

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Lawrence O'Toole

In visual terms, Herzog's movies define the boundaries of the exquisite; there's an eggshell delicacy to them. He will hold an image long enough for the senses to accommodate it, but not so long that you can indulge yourself with too much free-association. The image is withdrawn at the point where it has made the sufficient impact it has set out to make. It is, as it were, given gallery display; but, as it were, taken away at the critical point. It's not the image that matters so much (though in the conventional sense Herzog's imagery is more often than not stunning) as seeing the image….

Herzog lets you see the thing in its essence, but there is also the dramatic context of the narrative to...

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Gilberto Perez

[In Nosferatu-The Vampyre] Herzog tells the story with a certain irony (most salient in the deliberately archaizing mode of some of the performances) but without any intention of parody: he is asking us to take it in all seriousness. True, his source of inspiration was not Bram Stoker's Dracula but the first film rendering of it, F. W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu, the one occasion in which Stoker's tale yielded a great work of art…. Herzog is paying his respects to an old film he particularly admires, and attempting to reinstate the story to the kind of validity Murnau was able to give it. (p. 14)

Despite the recreation of the vampire's makeup, and the adherence to some...

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

It is to rescue Dracula from the defilements of high camp that Werner Herzog has … made his own Nosferatu. Herzog wants to restore Murnau's film to its rightful place in movie history, so he has remade the Murnau version scene by scene…. This is not to say that Herzog has no ideas of his own. Where his film departs from Murnau's, it is in the direction of naturalizing, even humanizing, the Dracula character. (p. 17)

At the same time that he is trying to revive the Dracula legend, Herzog is trying to make us sense its lost power. We should be able to understand, he is suggesting, how compelling a figure Dracula was in a world where death could take such an inexplicable and irresistible form...

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