White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929) Poster

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Two Versions Worth Seeing.
blue-72 January 2006
If I were to use just one word to capture the experience of seeing this film, it would be ASTOUNDING! Films dealing with mountain climbing such as THE WHITE TOWER, THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN or THE MOUNTAIN all pale in comparison with WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU (1929).

There are two versions now available on DVD that are both worth seeing. Universal bought it for U.S. release and cut it from 133 minutes to a 79 minute length. This edition is offered by Grapevine Video (www.grapevinevideo.com)and was the first one that I viewed. With its source material being a 16mm reduction print the picture lacks somewhat, but in many ways this version plays much stronger then the 133 minute restored print offered by Kino.

Purchasing the Kino DVD I was pleased to see the stunning picture coming from a 35mm nitrate print. There were many fascinating scenes missing from Universal's release, but the film lacked the power of the shorter length. It is said that Universal used unused shots from this film for inclusion in several of their later sound films -- and that is not hard to believe. There are stunning shots all the way through the picture, but one gets the feeling that the makers were reluctant to trim any of their fascinating material.

I'd recommend purchasing both DVD's and watching the Grapevine release first. Then take a look at the uncut Kino version to see the wonder of the cinematography and enjoy the additional scenes.

I think you will find the dramatic power of the film is strengthened with the trimming. One might wish that Universal had left a bit more in their cut, but the film does work better with tightening.

At any rate this 1929 silent film contains excellent performances and astounding climbing shots, the likes of which I have never seen before!
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Beautiful but dangerous mountains
foordie25 January 1999
A beautiful frozen mountain landscape is the setting for some of the most spectacular film shots of the era which have not been surpassed even with todays technology - the use of shadow and light is excellent. The story is simple and believable of a young couple climbing in the mountains, she gets killed and he, unconsolable, wanders the mountains for years without her. Many years later another couple come to the same mountains, meet him and agree to climb with him as their guide. Disaster strikes yet again. The filming of the mountain rescue team and the local villagers is very well done. The fear of the families is clearly shown as they wait while their fathers, sons and brothers are risking their lives on the mountain and the psychological effects on the injured climbers as they battle with the elements is more than realistic. Excellent!
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The White Hell of Piz Palü
mbr0819 March 2006
This 1928 movie is filmed entirely in black and white with minimal German dialogue. The White Hell of Piz Palü opens with the male protagonist, Dr. Johannes Krafft, who mountain climbs with his wife on their honeymoon. At the sight of an avalanche, he laughs arrogantly. Nature seems to retaliate, and moments later Dr. Krafft's wife slips, plummeting down a small, deep crevice. The encounter with forces of nature initiates Dr. Krafft's grief-driven search effort to rescue his wife.

Dr. Krafft is later joined by another couple, Maria Maoni and Hans Brandt. Collectively, they embark on an epic journey to conquer nature's untamed forces. Replete with majestic scenes of snowy mountains, blowing clouds and untainted lands, this film is the perfect example of a Bergfilm. The film takes place in the Dolomites, a section of the Italian Alps. Arnold Fanck, the director, is also the father of the Bergfilm and provides a genuine representation of the German mountain film. Nature functions as its own character, exerting its powerful forces upon the mountain climbers.

The landscape scenes and vast openness present in this film contribute to its aesthetic representation of the mountains. The plot is simplistic and the lack of actual conversation compels the viewer to focus his/her attention on nature as a driving force. Even though there is no color, the white, snowy mountainous setting speaks volumes and invites the viewer to see the innocence of white as a darker shade of hell.
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Man laughs; the mountain laughs back.
monolith9426 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
A sunny day in the Mountains - Dr. Johannes Krafft is out mountaineering with his lovely wife and a mountain guide. In his youthful exuberance, he looks up at the mountain that stand before him and laughs.

And like a furious and vengeful Greek God, the mountain strikes him and his life down. As his wife is standing next to a crevasse, peering down into it, an avalanche begins. In the ensuing chaos, the rope which connects her to safety is cut, she falls into the terrible deep, and Johannes clutches the end of the rope with force.

This is a film of primal, operatic power. The plot is threadbare - the entire story could be summarized quickly, with little loss of important events, but the plot is hardly the point of the film. What Pabst and Franck accomplished in their two hour mountain epic was to create a poem of beautiful horror. To combine the elements of wind and water, moving from Winter into Spring, and to express to us, the audience, what a mountain truly means, and to place us firmly in the shoes of those victimized by its terrible beauty. Terrible beauty: a dead man lies sprawled over an ice bridge. As searchers approach, the light shines through the ice, but not through the man's body, crisply showing us the fact of his death in combination with the grace of the piece of ice upon which he rests.

Some of the cinematography present is as beautiful and stirring as anything in cinema itself. The film takes a few moments just to show us the textures of things, cinematically interesting surfaces and movements. There are images, many of them having to do with clouds, that have nothing really to do with the matter of the plot, and yet no single frame ought to be taken away, for they support our experience of entering the world completely and wholely. There is some 'filler', sure. But the film can hardly faulted for not constantly hitting the giddy heights it occasionally reaches. Fanck and Pabst take us to a high realm of cinema, and if they slip a few times, they can hardly be faulted. As this film shows us, climbing is a dangerous occupation.

It's best to forget that Leni Riefenstahl is the female lead, in order to enjoy the film more purely. And then, afterwards, remember that she must have surely seen the film, and been inspired by it, to some degree.
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Even fewer weak points than expected...
ingo_schwarze14 July 2006
Other comments nicely point out the excellence of this film's mountain photography. That's why you should go watch it. Yet, before viewing it, i feared the plot and the film's perspective on humankind might be quite annoying. Gladly, this is not so.

Leni Riefenstahl has a rather doubtful reputation for acting Nazi propaganda films - but this film is quite free from patriotic or chauvinist sub tones. In fact, it is pleasing even from a modern feminist perspective, actively avoiding and rebuking gender clichés, which is quite astonishing in a piece of art dating from pre-WW2 times.

Many ancient mountain films, in particular German ones, praise heroic fight. On first sight, some people claim this one does so, too. On closer inspection, i don't think so any more. Granted, Dr. Krafft does act heroically - but it's completely obvious less obsession and more prudence from his part would have served everyone much better. Hans wants to be a hero - but for that very reason is proved the greatest fool. Maria, the least heroic of all the party and the most sensible, clearly leaves the best impression in the end. A film can hardly promote heroism by showing off its dumbness...

The film has its weak points, but naming these rather shows how good it actually is: The film's location is the Piz Palu north face. Yet, many scenes have been taken in the Piz Morteratsch south east face. So far, no problem - a north face has bad sunlight, but the film dwells on light. On top of that, turning a film in the Palu north face would have been suicidal. That ice wall is indeed extremely dangerous and quite famous for its icy avalanches. Yet, the faking of the location could have been better concealed in many scenes. Viewing a panorama in the background that simply cannot be seen from the location the foreground is meant to represent IS disturbing if you know the whereabouts. A few glitches are even worse: For probably technical reasons, when searching for climbers in the steep Palu north face, the film actually shows scans of a flat glacier basin (the Vadret Pers glacier tongue, as far as i remember). This gross inconsistency will annoy you even if you do not personally know the Bernina mountains.

The weakest point of the film are the subtitles. Clearly, they are meant to help understanding of the plot - remember this is a mute movie. A few of them are certainly required, but they are simply far too numerous, and many just rehash what is obvious from the fine pictures, anyway.

But hey, superfluous subtitles and faked locations - we ought to be glad not to find more serious defects to complain about...
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Hanging Rocks
chaos-rampant28 September 2011
As with other esoteric film traditions that have given us an aesthetic and coherent worldview that matters - Soviet montage, Japanese jidaigeki, film noir, the Nuberu Bagu, of course the American western - actually more than anything with these things that vigorously beat with the heart of a nation or society, we need to relocate ourselves as best we can to where the specific world emanates from.

In jidaigeki, for example, it is the double-bind between duty and human feeling that drives forward or tears the soul, but instead of becoming visible in confusion and chaos, and this is what's so important, it radiates in perfectly disciplined form. We need to be able to see how the submission is both social evil and spiritual practice.

Unlike all the above though, here we have an even more obscure type of genre gone in a matter of years, the berg- or mountain-film. Coming to it now, we may be simply inclined to marvel at a few mountain vistas, make a few concessions about the awe-inspiring courage of filming in freezing temperatures with the bulky equipment of the time, and move on to where a story is being told. Move maybe to Murnau if we want to stick in the vicinity, who was then at Hollywood orchestrating human destinies as city symphonies.

But this is a different beast from those city films, popular then in Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, where modern life was joyous motion, a coiled spring anxiously bristling with modernist energy ready for the leap forward; here life, though optimistic at first, young and happy, gradually it turns sombre, is taught humility through suffering, obeisance through the confrontation with the elemental forces from planes above. It comes out on the other end, older, less innocent, hardened, perhaps wiser.

One can see how these images - young, tireless men and women wishing to carve their destinies in rock, though finally succumbing to the decree above - could inspire agitprop for the Nazis; we know the tragic, bitter history of Leni Riefenstahl, both hers and the one she sculpted from bodies on film, and here she's the woman who reasons, yet also instigates, the passions between the men that cause the catastrophic events. She accompanies the disastrous journey, watches aghast from a little out of way, and returns mute with loss. It's a poignant foreshadowing of her own history.

The story is about a couple who arrives at the mountains to celebrate their marriage. They frolic in the snow. Life is so blissful, a champagne falls from the sky to wish the newlyweds. The first shadow in this snowed meadow is the apparition of a second man, the ghost of a man wandering the chasms that swallowed his girl.

The two men as one really; they have the same name, the young, reckless one informally called Hans, the older, now wiser with suffering called Johannes. So the journey is simultaneously about these two; the older man vicariously walking again with the woman he lost, hoping to prevent what he couldn't, the younger walking to prove himself worthy of the other, to prove perhaps that he won't lose where he did.

There are amazing shots of shadows rolling down the craggy snowed wilderness that presage disaster. Portents of doom abound in the mountains, crevasses whispering glacial secrets, snow spilling over the edges.

We encounter later this tradition in the films of Rossellini; the mountain in Stromboli as the summit of closeness with an absent god. But here, properly German, the mountain offers not even the space of the confessional; it remains to the end indomitable, the abode of inscrutable forces beyond the human sphere. It is merely the precipice where human destiny is halted; where it submits or perishes. But whereas in Picnic at Hanging Rock, a continuation of these films, human destiny vanishes completely from the precipice, here we know the man's resting place; entombed behind a sheet of ice, he is foolhardy yet immortalized in the way of a hero.

All else aside, you should see this for its aural qualities alone. Few filmmakers have evoked a better vastness; no doubt Herzog has seen this film numerous times.
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David Jeffers for SIFFblog.com
rdjeffers20 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Teuton Ecstasy: Weimar Cinema and The Mountain Film

As the World emerged from the First World War a great infusion of money and talent poured into Hollywood, fueling the emerging studio system that produced increasingly complex and lavish spectacles. At the same time, the Weimar Republic foundered in economic and moral depression. The German film industry, unable to compete with Hollywood, developed one of the greatest innovations in film history as their means of survival. Expressionism employed the use of environmental distortion and clever artifice to emphasize dramatic performance. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927) introduced a new form of wildly creative entertainment.

As Weimar cinema advanced, Expressionist film splintered into various new forms and influenced others. G. W. Pabst produced a number of films during this period that adopted Expressionist elements, but also characterized a move away from the ecstatic dynamism of Expressionist film and into a realism described as Post-Expressionist or the New Objectivity. Another emerging genre during this period was the Mountain Film, which portrayed an idyllic alpine lifestyle, combining athleticism and spectacular outdoor settings. Mountain Films served the German cultural identity not unlike Westerns did in the United States. By far, the major contributor to the Mountain Film genre was Arnold Fanck, who began filming alpine adventure documentaries in 1921 and gradually progressed into dramatic features. His early work was criticized for its use of overly simplistic and predictable scenarios, yet films like The Holy Mountain (1926) were highly entertaining, beautiful to look at and immensely popular.

The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929)

Monday January 22, 7:00pm, The Paramount Theater

The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929) is the story of three climbers trapped on a mountain of rotting ice in blizzard conditions, awaiting their rescue, or their death. It was typical Fanck, featuring gorgeous outdoor photography and the aerial acrobatics of WWI flying ace Ernst Udet. A departure for this film was the co-directing of Fanck who handled all the scenic work, and G. W. Pabst who was brought in to direct the acting scenes. Fanck's favorite leading lady, Leni Riefenstahl, once again starred, this time with Gustav Dissel, who appeared opposite Louise Brooks as Jack the Ripper in Pandora's Box (1928). While the use of these two directors may be easily understood by comparing them to their modern equivalents (imagine the pairing of Warren Miller and Mike Nichols), there is no modern equal to Reifenstahl.
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tedg27 August 2008
Most of the time, its the world. Its not the story that matters, or the inflections we see as jokes. Or any of that when I watch a movie.

Most of the time it is the trill of entering another universe. A different cosmology where the forces that drive souls are different from the one I have chosen to live in. Its especially rewarding when I know that the cosmos was real so far as the filmmakers are concerned. So, for instance I like those films from radical Christians about fighting the devil in the end times, because the film itself is part of that battle for them.

I like watching films from the US side of the cold war, where impending and nearly certain brimstone was expected from an evil empire, the science stolen, with agents still among us.

And I like watching these German mountain films. All the ones I mention are generally insipid, but the filmcraft of these in terms of the visuals is competent and sometimes interesting. For instance in this one there is a remarkable — I will go so far as to say unforgettable — visual of the villagers rousing in the night for rescue. The scene is of dozens of men with spectacular torches (they called them pitch torches) weaving through snow hollows in a sort of swooshy haunt. But that's visual froth on the beer.

What we have here is a strange association of nature with place, of purpose with nature and of love as a sort of purpose. One can readily see how this world could support a notion of global destiny, and in fact one can see how close it is to the cosmos of Polish Jews and see why the threat seemed so real. You can even trace it through the cinematic career of one remarkable woman, Leni, who evolved through the mystery of place to the mystery of the body. The natural body, using a very specific notion of "nature."

But for someone like me, a cosmological tourist, a collector of abstracted curios, this one in Leni's chain is the most jarring because it has the strongest pulse. You hardly notice the woman. Its all mountain blood.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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The first important bergsteiger movie
sebastian_wm29 May 2016
Watching the movie in 2016 and being a mountaineer myself, I am in awe at the shots they did with the very limited tech they had back in 1929, both in climbing and in filming. Daring to say the least (and that extends to the flying scenes by Udet). I would love to see a Making-Of of this movie but that is obviously not going to happen.

Leni Riefenstahl is at her best as an actor and Gustav Diessl delivers a very convincing performance, lest not forget the actor that plays the mountain guide.

I would suggest this movie to everyone who climbs in the Alps, just for the climbing part (the middle 40 mins of the movie).
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Slow but pretty "mountain" film
marie_D14 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
You just have to know a character is doomed when she is mountain climbing while wearing a skirt. Sure enough this one bites the dust within 5 minutes of the start of the picture. The hero has a grip of iron but the rope breaks. The hero's heart is broken and he spends his lonely life wondering the alps. Later he meets up with a young couple (Leni Riefenstahl and Ernst Petersen). Despite the hero's obvious death wish and the ominous weather, the couple decide to join him in an attempt to conquer the mountain's dangerous North Face. They are, of course, trapped by avalanches. Leni Riefenstahl glows with athletic beauty and the scenery is magnificent. Other than that I found the movie somewhat tedious.

I was fascinated with the attitude towards women. Although Leni refused to be left behind by the men and at least did not attempt to climb in her skirt, she did almost nothing to try to get the little group rescued even though she was the only uninjured member of the party. It wasn't like there was much to do. It mostly consisted of calling out and waving objects around but she didn't even do that.
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film blanc
mukava99111 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This frequently gripping but overdone mountain film starts with a plain and simple story: an engaged couple (Ernst Petersen and Leni Riefenstahl) on an Alpine excursion encounter a veteran climber (Gustav Diessl) who haunts the local peaks grieving for his wife who fell into a glacial crevice and disappeared during a climbing trip a few years earlier. The couple joins him on another climb but all three become trapped on a frozen ledge from which they must be rescued by hardy locals with the help of a daredevil prop plane pilot.

There are many similarities to SOS Eisberg, made a few years later with some of the same key participants: the star of both films is the icy scenery superbly shot by Richard Angst and Hans Schneeberger; Leni Riefenstahl in both cases is the loyal lover of an incapacitated explorer whose rescue depends on the quick action of a local community and the surveillance of a skilled airplane pilot; principal players endure prolonged trials in conditions that would quickly kill most people, from frostbite if nothing else. Petersen in particular is restrained with rope after he begins to lose his mind and spends what seems like days half buried in snow without moving, eating or drinking, yet we are supposed to believe his feet are spared from snapping off like popsicles thanks to occasional ankle massages from his loving fiancée. Even after severe buffetings from the raw elements, the appearance (complexions, hair and, in Riefenstahl's case, makeup) of the leads look none the worse for wear. Their clothes wouldn't keep the average person warm on a winter afternoon in Berlin, let alone on a frozen, wind-blasted rock face thousands of feet high, with no hot food and in a state of physical exhaustion. On top of this, Diessl has to cope with a broken leg. At times he starts to resemble Paul Wegener as The Golem standing stoically and gesturing stiffly against the pitiless elements.

There is far too much intercutting between rugged vistas and the unfortunate trio shivering amidst the icicles. A good 10-20 minutes could have been trimmed with no loss of content. It is not necessary to subject the audience to endless repetition in order to illustrate the climbers' sufferings. On the plus side, we get a documentary-like glimpse into the Alpine world – both wild and civilized sides. There is an unpretentious naturalism in the early scenes in the mountain hut where the couple settles in before meeting Diessl.

This film as well as SOS Eisberg could have carried the title "Triumph of the Will," for what else could underlie the superhuman endurance of the main characters? In an interview which accompanies the Kino DVD of "Piz Palu" the 100-year-old Riefenstahl discusses her lifelong resistance to the notion of impossibility. It just depends on what you are up against.
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I'd score this higher if it wasn't like so many of Riefenstahl's other films.
MartinHafer11 October 2010
If you don't know the context for this film, it's pretty easy to be impressed by this film because of its technical prowess. After all, it was an amazing commitment to the film makers to trek up[ into the Alps to make this film and the cinematography is great. However, if you've seen Leni Riefenstahl's pre-Hitler sponsored films, you'd know that this is exactly the sort of film she made again and again...and again. While this actress never made that many films (as an actress, she was only in 11 movies), I have seen four in which the film is set in the mountains--with very, very, very similar plots. And, when I checked, I saw that at least three more of her films were show and mountain films!!! And so, when you see them you have a strong feeling of déjà vu--and the films become incredibly boring with their sameness. And, to top it off, once again Ernst Udet is in the film to demonstrate his considerable skills as an aviator (before ultimately becoming the head of Hitler's Luftwaffe).

Because the plot is basically the same at her other films, though STILL a good silent movie, I score this one a 6. It's good but hardly important for the average film goer to see. I got completely bored watching it--but if you haven't seen her other snow and mountain films, you are sure to be impressed.
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Great to look at, but it drags
zetes13 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Most famous for being a Leni Riefenstahl vehicle (well, actually now probably even more famous as a twice-referenced film in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, which obviously was the impetus for me to rent the film, though I've always wanted to see it), the real star of this picture is the breathtaking photography of Piz Palu, a peak in southeastern Switzerland. There are so many stunning shots, much of the film may be spent with mouth agape, wondering how they accomplished the feat of filming this when they did. Riefenstahl is actually a pretty good second reason to see the movie. I had only ever seen the ancient version of the actor/director, but she was actually quite a stunning beauty in 1929. The story here is okay, but nothing special. Mountain expert Gustav Diessl has been searching the peaks of Piz Palu far and wide to find the body of his long lost wife, whom he lost years earlier during a climb (he assumes she's frozen in the ice somewhere). Riefenstahl and her new fiancé, Ernst Petersen, meet him at a cabin at the base of the mountain. Petersen, afraid that his bride-to-be is more attracted to this ubermensch, decides to second Diessl. Riefenstahl will have none of that and decided to go with them, too. Like a total a-hole, inexperienced Petersen almost gets all three of them killed. This is the second movie of the week (after Jacques Becker's Casque d'or) about a dumb guy who makes a complete idiot of himself for a woman. At least Riefenstahl would be worth it (impending Nazi-ness notwithstanding), but it's not like she ever asked her clearly beloved future husband to prove himself. About half the movie is about the three of them desperately trying to signal rescuers (who are also searching for the corpses of a bunch of other climbers who had a run-in with an avalanche). The major problem with The White Hell of Pitz Palu (I know I keep changing the spelling of "Pitz/Piz", but so does the Kino DVD, which uses "Pitz" on its cover but "Piz" in its intertitles) is that it just drags on and on. Every bit of information that is communicated could probably have been communicated in half the time. I'm all for full, original versions of films, and I definitely would have chosen the 133 minute version given a choice, but I'd bet the 90 minute cut (the silent version, if there is such a thing) is a lot better. Kino has released a whole bunch of these Leni Riefenstahl "Mountain Pictures" (the inspiration for Guy Maddin's Careful), including Tiefland, S.O.S. Iceberg, The Holy Mountain, The Blue Light and Storm Over Mount Blanc.
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Only visually impressive
Horst_In_Translation11 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
"Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü" or "White Hell of Pitz Palu" is a German 2.5-hour movie although i must say the version I saw "only" ran for 2 hours and 15 minutes. It is a silent movie, unless you go for the reworked version that only runs for 90 minutes roughly. That one has sound, but I could find it nowhere. It is also massively cut, so it's probably not wort seeing anyway. For this film, Georg Wilhelm Pabst and Arnold Fanck united, two of the most renowned pre-Nazi filmmakers from Germany. Fanck was mostly in charge of the recordings from the mountains, while Pabst dealt with the indoor scenes. Fanck shot several other mountain-located films, so this was certainly his area of expertise. These were really famous back then. Even if they are not always about being the first that reach the top, like this one here, which is also about a lost love, it was still a temptation to go where nobody has gone before, back then certainly a lot more than today. Then again we have been everywhere by now, including Mount Everest, so maybe that's why the drive is mostly gone. And maybe we humans also do not belong on certain places.

The cast includes Leni Riefenstahl during her acting days and famous pilot and World War I hero Ernst Udet, who also starred in several of Fanck's mountain movies before his untimely death. Well.. what can i say about this film. It certainly is way way too long in terms of the story and it definitely could have needed more subtitles. I lost interest in this at some point. More text may have made this a better film. The setting is outstanding of course and the film's biggest strength is the cinematography. I only wish the plot would have been half as good and smooth as the visual aspects of this film. You can basically also watch a documentary set in the same region. Or any other mountain area and you get at least the same quality. I cannot recommend watching this film. Thumbs down.
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