Leadership Lessons From The Film “Das Boot”

A few days ago I saw the director’s cut version of the 1981 German film Das Boot. Of course I had seen it before, but it had been at least a decade, and it had been the theatrical version, not the director’s cut. The film was every bit as harrowing, realistic, and tragic as I had originally remembered it; perhaps more, now that the passage of time and (hopefully) greater maturity had enhanced my sensitivity to suffering and loss.

It is without doubt the greatest film of naval combat ever made, and belongs on that very short list of the greatest war films ever made. The heroism and fortitude displayed made me ponder what I had seen for days afterwards, as I am wont to do after any emotionally engaging experience.


The greatest of all naval war films

What greater eulogy could be made to those brave men of the German U-boat service, which witnessed shockingly high casualty rates? Consider this: of the 1155 submarines that Germany sent into battle, we are told, 725 never returned. The death rate of German seamen, incredibly, exceeded 60 percent, a figure equaled by no other service of any other nation.

And yet the Kriegsmarine never suffered from a want of volunteers; its morale, against all expectations, remained high even at the conclusion of the war. Most U-boat commanders never even surrendered their vessels, preferring either to scuttle their crafts or sail them to neutral ports.


In the belly of the beast:  the engine room

Das Boot was intended to be the film rendition of Lothar-Günther Bluchheim’s 1973 novel of the same name. Bluchheim’s novel related the adventures of U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941. From the outset, director Wofgang Petersen wanted the action, scenes, and sets to be as faithful as possible to actual wartime conditions.

The film was the most expensive in German film history. No effort was spared in meticulous attention to detail: several submarine mock-ups were constructed, actors were required to follow a strict regimen to enable them to acquire that pallid, sickly complexion that a real sailor might acquire from prolonged denial of sunlight, and the crew was put through an arduous training schedule.


The film took two full years of production and was released in 1981. The final result is nothing less than spectacular. We feel the exhilaration of salt spray on our faces while standing in the conning tower, plunging through the cold, white-peaked waves; we grit our teeth in irritation at the ceaseless pulse of the rackety diesel engine; we surge with joy at the sounds of enemy bulkheads cracking from direct torpedo strikes; and we soak in the horror and claustrophobia of being subject to depth-charge attack from an unseen enemy.

This is the grim face of combat, of battle leadership, raw and undiluted. Yet beyond the film’s merits as an artistic achievement, there are timeless lessons here, which will be familiar to those who have had military leadership experience in conditions of extreme duress.


Be technically and tactically proficient. No leader can be effective unless he knows his business completely. The U-boat commander emerges to me as the major figure of the film. Actor Jürgen Prochnow plays the intense, reserved “Kapitänleutnant” (also called “Der Alter”, or “old man” by his crew) who always seems to project a command presence under even the worst conditions. He knows every inch of his ship, and is obviously a veteran of multiple combat patrols.

His chief engineer (played marvelously by Klaus Wennemann) is the perfect complement to his captain’s simmering intensity. His technical brilliance is what enables the sub to rise from the seafloor at Gibraltar. Technical and tactical ability cannot be faked. All of the captain’s big decisions are made in the full view of the other crewmembers, under the direst of circumstances. There is no running and hiding, no dodging, and no opportunity to shift the blame. There is no room for posturing or theatrics: either the leader knows his business, or he does not.


Train your men as a team and cultivate cohesiveness. It is difficult to imagine circumstances that would promote as much cohesion and unity than service aboard a U-boat. The men “hot-rack” (alternate bunks between men); have one toilet for fifty crewmen; and are crammed together like sardines. The actors had to go through an arduous training schedule that would enable them to move about the submarine with ease, and this was before filming even began. The conditions of hardship and unrelenting adversity cement the bonds of duty between the crewmembers like no other environment could hope to achieve.

While passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, the ship is attacked and plunges directionless to the seafloor. Without this level of unit cohesion, there is no way the crew could have gotten the boat repaired and raised from the deep.


Dive!  Dive!  Dive!

Know your men. The captain was always aware of his men’s capabilities and limitations, and was not afraid to push the boundaries of both. He never coddles his men, but never is curt or disrespectful with them, either. There were times when he deliberately withheld information from them that they did not need to know. He tried, for example, to get the chief engineer and another crewmember off the boat before they passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. The unstated reason, they later found out, was that the captain did not expect to survive the crossing of the Straits.

Set an example. The example of the officers is consistently the same: professionalism, tactical knowledge, and bearing. Despite the worst possible conditions, and under the most adverse of combat circumstances, the captain and chief engineer never outwardly show signs of fatigue or hesitation. When you are in a leadership situation, your people are going to be watching your every move: every inflection of the voice, every raised eyebrow, every bodily gesture. Command presence matters:  how you look, how you present yourself, and how you conduct yourself will be assiduously studied.


My captain, my captain: the anguished conclusion

Enforce discipline tempered by fairness and justice. There is a moving scene in the film where one of the engine-room technicians (named Johann) temporarily cracks under the strain of combat and ignores the captain’s order to return to his battle-station. The captain retrieves his pistol and seems prepared to shoot Johann; discipline and orders in the German military were not a punch-line in those days.

Later, when the danger had passed, Johann apologizes to the captain, who forgives him and sends him on his way. This action showed a generosity of spirit and awareness of human nature that a lesser leader might have been incapable of appreciating. Sometimes it is better to let things go, especially if the offending person has a solid track record of performance.

Be aggressive and take the fight to the enemy. The mission always comes first, and there is no way to obscure this fact. The purpose of the U-boat is to sink enemy vessels, and this is something the captain knows. He is a wolf, a predator. He does not hesitate to attack convoys that a less aggressive commander might have gone out of his way to avoid. A leader must take the initiative and not shrink away from situations that cause him and his men discomfort.

All in all, we must rank the leadership lessons of Das Boot the most powerfully delivered messages of the film, clearly overshadowing the antiwar intentions of the director. While the film can be seen as an adventure story, an antiwar parable, or as an operatic tragedy, it also serves to showcase the leadership traits and principles that we as leaders should aspire to. Das Boot joins Adolf Von Schell’s classic manual on small-unit combat leadership Battle Leadership as one of the very few epitomes that have the ring of brutal, hard truth, forged and tested under fire.

Read More: Leadership Training For Men

87 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons From The Film “Das Boot””

  1. While those lessons may be good the question now is. How do we instill those qualities in ourselves in the modern era?
    Knowing is one thing, having those qualities as intrinsic to ones own nature is another.

    1. Before this is over we’ll all be “pirates” from the point of view of the state and the control freaks who run it.

  2. There are a lot of other great lessons to be taken away from Das Boot, including integrity, solidarity, camaraderie, confidence, etc. So many powerful tests of character in that film. Truly one of the greats.

  3. Hard to find movies that portray positive masculinity nowadays. The feminine imperative has infected the movie and TV industry to the point where I feel like puking, especially when a movie or show tries to shove the idea of the “strong independent woman” down my throat while simultaneously portraying the men as bumbling idiots, criminals, or just directionless dudes who need a woman to take the lead.

    1. All the three Batman movies, from Nolan, were very inspiring for me.
      As for series, there is “True Detective”. It shows both our strengths and vulnerabilties.

      1. Unfortunately, Hollywood has become increasingly more interested in promoting particular left-political agendas as opposed to entertaining their audience. It is why I never trade my income for their product.

      2. So quit the movies. Read. It’s free and you can pick any time period. I’m not trying to scold or lecture, just an idea for you. I’ve quit (except for a few classics, Goodfellas etc). I might have saved 500$ already and I was a moderate movie-goer. It feels very CLEAN.

        1. Agree with you completely. I went to see the “Battle of Five Armies” Hobbit movie, and the 15-minute previews of films coming out this summer were almost universally remakes or sequels of previous films; only ONE was a film that seemed to be an original idea.
          Pathetic films from a morally corrupt, politicized leftist industry — sometimes I wish that the “Big One” would finally happen and flatten LA and Hollywood, and burn everything to the ground.

    2. Its like eating glass that’s why I stopped watching any of it. But, so have many other people and its showing in ratings and hurting them where it counts. Moreover, whether “they” decide to finally do something for their customers or not I think old media is going to be disrupted, in fact, I think the process has already started and its irreversible. We have the “feminine imperative” because of a centralized media…for many years you had to have this fed to you because their were no other options of substitutes. Today, we’re still early but we’re an app away from total systemic media decentralization.

  4. Great movie-thanks for bringing it to the ROK audience Quintus. Sadly, working in the corporate environment provides few examples of true leaders. Just because you have the “manager” title does not make you an effective leader. I see mainly blaming, weakness and and detachment from their employees. There’s little in the way of meritocracy these days-mostly nepotism and favoritism. This is why we have so many weak leaders..don’t get me started on Washington.

  5. Unfortunately, feminism has destroyed many opportunities for men to become real leaders in the workplace. Afterall, in today’s society, its not about hard work and merit to get a job, but its all about meeting that quota in regards to having more women in the labor market.
    How many times have we seen women in management positions, trying to be an “effective” leader and she thinks that the only way to achieve it is to be a bitch and treat the rest of the team like shit. Women now actually consider the word “bitch” as a compliment.
    And yes, just like many other men, I am also getting fed up of the constant recycling Hollywood bullshit television shows where the lead character is a female FBI agent or government agent, and the men are inferior simps. Fucking hell, what a joke.

    1. “I am also getting fed up with the constant recycling of Hollywood
      bullshit television shows where the lead character is a female FBI agent
      or government agent, and the men are inferior simps”
      TV is just catering to their audience; women watch more tv, increasingly are making more money, spend their boyfriend/husbands money as well (70-75% of consumer spending is by the ladies). It all about the money.
      I guess men just watch movies and sports, play video games…
      Check out Longmire, its about a sheriff’s dept in Wyoming. Its def a show for men.

    2. modern germany just passed a law that forces a quota of women into corporate management positions. i’m not sure what the percentage is but it’s pretty sad nevertheless.

    3. in a world run by betas and all women are inherently beta, it’s all about the bitching and back stabbing… the results are secondary to the inflation of the ego…… if it all goes to pieces and i can blame someone else, that’s almost as good as being successful…..

    4. Is the woman a bitch because she wants to be, or does she act like that because its the only way for her to get men to listen to her? Maybe in a world where men don’t take women seriously the only way to maintain leadership as a woman is to put others in their place. Go to any corporation and you will find plenty of men who are portraying the same characteristics as female leaders. Sometimes being in charge means that you have to act in a way that forces people to follow your orders, even if that means losing their friendship or the veneer of niceness.

  6. Glad to see a write up of Das Boot. One of my all time favorites. You should also do a write up on Breaker Morant. Lots of good lessons there too.

  7. Fast forward to modern times:
    “Michelle Obama sponsors first-ever ALL-FEMALE $2.7 Billion nuclear submarine”
    Some comedy gold from the latter forum:
    “If they paint it white it will look like a giant tampon when the mooring lines are on it.”
    “To find the sub, just follow the sharks”
    “When will we have an all transgender submarine?” “That will be the USS San Francisco”
    “This won’t be a missile boat. Missiles are extension of the paternalistic, misogynistic male dominated power structure. Missiles are nothing more than phallic symbols used to wage unjust wars. No, this boat won’t be associated with some symbolic idolatry of male parts.”

    1. Just read the article and it has verified everything I have known about this world- one giant freakshow.

      1. Either it will have a typical peacetime career and be celebrated by feminists for ever and ever, inspiring a heroic movie about all the super empowered women, or it will go horribly wrong with all hands lost and inspire a heroic movie about all the super empowered women.

        1. Don’t forget how the film will detail their bitter struggle against the men who told them it could never work, or, in the case of a catastrophic failure, the tale of their betrayal at the hands of men who refused to believe in them and support them.

      1. No, there won’t be enough females in submarine service by 2015, let alone with enough experience, although they are presently allowed on both attack subs and ballistic missile subs.
        Problems have already surfaced, from the AR15 forum:
        “The problem in training women on subs with men is that they want their own racks/shitter/shower…
        I heard a story where 2 or 3 women deployed on a Los Angeles class attack sub and the sub removed all of the men from a 9 man berthing area, that means that 6 guys had to hot bunk instead of sleeping in the 6 empty racks.”

        1. Is that a fact? The Navy is forcing men to share the same beds so the females will be more comfortable. Mutinous thoughts must creep in as they go to lay in a still warm bunk some other sailor just vacated. Word about this needs to spread. Enough!

        2. dont these types of subs stay out for months at a time? Where will these ladies go shopping? They better put a mall inside that sub or they will be a mutiny within two weeks.

        3. Some guy on another board claimed to be on the last ship to integrate women. Within 3 months, 200 or so of the 300-plus women got pregnant. You never hear about any of these stories. Another story was a guy’s unit was set to deploy overseas, and two in his unit got preggo last minute, so they had to deploy short-handed. and your tax dollars pay for these GI Janes to sit on their asses…

        4. You never hear about how women are, uh, screwing up the military. Of course the women are preyed upon and innocent. It is now a staple news story and, you understand, a very important issue this male sexism against women in the military and harassment and apparently there is rape epidemic in the armed forces. And people thought the old hippie protesters were rude towards U.S. servicemen. A lot of that ’60s kiddie protestor behavior seems innocent in its way compared to the insidious media manipulation and twisted ideas feminists successfully spread these days. “Rape culture” is one of the ugliest big lies ever invented.

        5. Men get raped in the military, too. But still, it isn’t that widely known as males raping females because feminists and white knights don’t really want to publicize it. It seems that everything that is centered on women being victims are the ones that are made a bigger deal out of not the other way around. Double standards suck but feminists think they are better than everyone else just for having a vagina. They are just ‘Walking Vaginas’ with nothing useful to say.

        6. Some of ’em sure do talk a lot about their vaginas. There’s even a book by a prominent feminist called, “Vagina: A New Biography”. You can’t make this shit up. Ridiculous witches.

        7. Hence, they are called ‘Walking Vaginas.’ One reason why ‘Vagina Monologues’ exist. That is all they give a shit about. Fat, ugly feminists ruin the world and accuse everyone of being ‘misogynist’ for not agreeing with them.

        8. “…feminists think they are better than everyone else just for having a vagina.”
          So true! They think that they pee rosewater and their sh*t doesn’t stink.

        9. They CAN get knocked up by civilians, too, you know! Especially by the sexy, exciting ‘bad boys’ off base!

        10. Another example of feminist ‘equality’.
          But I’ll bet that they still wanted the guys to have to come in and ‘help’ clean the berthing/showers/shitters.

    2. At least since it’s an all-female crew, they won’t have any man to blame when something goes wrong…which it eventually will (speaking as a Navy retiree with nearly fourteen years of sea duty).

  8. I remember that film. They passed through all that shit and were nerfed in the end. The best scene is when the submarine is watching the survivors of the ship they just torpedoed. An official asks the captain what to do and he just says ‘We can not take prisoners’ and then they left

  9. I will need to see this film. Hope there is English caption.
    Another film I enjoyed was “K-19 Widowmaker” with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Kind of similar regarding submarines, but more modern with nuclear subs. It was a true story.

    1. It’s on Netflix with English captions. Amazing, fantastic movie and not just “war movie”, either. It’s 3+ hours and feels like 90min.

    2. I think there might be an english language version. It’s been a long time but I think I saw it in english.

  10. Ever seen Cross of Iron? Now there is a film about leadership in an environment where politics trumps competence.

      1. Interesting avatar you have. What is the source? I read once that this symbol (or one close to it) appears throughout meso-American architectural motifs.

    1. Saw that one when I was a kid. Damn good movie. The last four or five minutes especially are hard to forget. The deadbeat officer asks how to reload his gun (if I remember right) and James Cobourn just breaks down laughing at his ineptitude as the Russians are closing in all around them. What else can you do at that point but laugh.

      1. It was a bit messy certainly, but it had some powerful scenes. The one that always sticks in my head is the grotesque vegetable feast that the cripples have at the hospital, after the generals have taken the roast beef inside. As for leadership, we see two distinct models of relevance today. We see Steiner, the true Alpha who never talks shit, gets the job done, walks away from easy pussy as soon as he sees his unit, and is absolutely frank in his hatred of officers. Then we have the vain and cowardly Stransky, just the kind of piece of shit who would do very well in today’s political climate, because he is obsessed with image and doesn’t give two fucks about substance. In a way Stransky would really fit in well in HR. Two different models of manhood.

    1. Agree! That is in my own collection, along with “Twelve O’Clock High”, and “Jeremiah Johnson”.

  11. I always remember the look on the Captain and his chief engineer’s face when they’re looking at the instruments as they are sinking. You could see the panic behind their eyes trying to break through but they held back, somehow despite the water pressure threatening to crush the sub. God the tension in that film could be condensed into cough syrup. Great film.

    1. Yes, that was a great scene. It’s worth mentioning that, from what I learned while researching this article, the author of the original book was not too pleased with the director’s portrayal. He thought there was too much overacting, too much “glorifying” of the material, and some other minor issues.
      I don’t agree with Mr. Bluchheim. As an author, of course he’s not going to like the film version. What writer has liked the film version of his book? Hardly any of them.
      I also think that the production of a movie entails considerable technical limitations and compromises that authors just aren’t aware of. It’s a lot harder than it looks, basically.

      1. My father was in Vietnam so I got exposed to a lot of war films growing up. There’s plenty of classics like this but there’s also plenty of overlooked gems out there. The Siege of Firebase Gloria is worth a look:
        Normally I’d say buy the film but unfortunately you can’t find it on DVD, so the upload is from VHS, so the quality isn’t very…great. But it’s pretty good movie, even if it’s rough around the edges. There’s some pretty good moments in it, and R Lee Ermy steals the show.

        1. This film is one of those orphans of the film world that never found a home. It deserves a true theatrical release, or at the very least a DVD presence. It’s been languishing in limbo for some time, and undeservedly so.

  12. Back in the day, we used to watch movies on the messdeck on submarines after the evening meal.
    Movies back then were on three (or four) REELS and the reels had to be changed when the film ran out. The reel change took a minute or two and during that interval, crew members grabbed a cup of coffee or some popcorn.
    At the end of a movie, there was the usual hubbub and chatter one would expect of forty or fifty sailors.
    I saw “Das Boot” on my second submarine sometime in the early 80’s. When the movie ended, there was an eerie silence on the messdeck. You could hear the film flipping in the reel and it took a few minutes for anyone to turn on the messdeck lights.
    The film screen finally went up and the crew quietly left. Nobody talked about it for days.

  13. The end of that movie is really powerful.
    Quintus, have you seen our national “Cyrano de Bergerac” with Depardieu ?
    From what I can guess of your tastes, you will probably enjoy it. It is a masterpiece.
    Oh, and that one you must also absolutely watch : “Capitaine Conan” from Bertrand Tavernier.
    It’s set on the romanian front after the end of the first world war, when French soldiers were still fighting there. It depicts a part of history not many people know about, as well as the human aspects of the military life in a very realistic way.
    You can also see the methods of the special forces ancesters, the “corps francs”.

  14. ROK is fucking awesome, “Das Boot” is one of my favorites and as a former Marine Corps officer, its an excellent depiction of leadership and something we should all be taking inspiration from…for what its worth. Capt T. Gunner USMC.
    Some thoughts on a couple comments on this thread regarding our current media’s “content” etc. Look, I certainly agree its downright insulting to men, period, and obnoxiously pro-female. It is, in fact, no less than the racist depictions of African Americans although they leave out the painted faces. But here is the thing, first off this is the product of a larger culture that, among other things, calls menstrual blood paintings “art”. That said, is it any surprise that for all the canned femocentric treatments we clearly see that its A. resulted in suffocating originality, which is the true essence of art be it film or in other mediums and B. note the marked decline in viewership, ratings, box office etc.
    And lastly, media is undergoing a disruption, perhaps still a little too early to really see, but, going forward the centralized supply chain of mass media from creation, financing, production to distribution will be forced to endure massive systemic decentralization. Each one of us will, I truly believe, never have to endure the synthetic social engineering of feminists again. Our own personalized entertainment…indeed cultural experience will be as customized as your apple iTunes…its only a couple app’s away. Want movies and content similar to “Das Boot”, it will be automatically fed to you via your genius app. The next iteration will be localized productions…it will be great because real talent and quality will flourish not nepotism and cabals.

    1. Hell’s yeah, someone that knows who Clay Christensen is!
      I also agree that what’s going on with traditional media today is really it’s last dying gasps. Movies that do well aren’t the feminist-politically-correct garbage we typically get. And as with music we already see that it’s becoming decentralized. I no longer listen to the radio to listen to music I like, I just go on youtube, find someone I like, then in the related videos it’ll likely have videos from musicians that are similar, or new ones to check out.
      If look at the trend of “internet reviewers” that spawned up several years ago, you can see they started off being pretty “crappy” and were basically serving markets that were being neglected or weren’t consuming any kind of entertainment so to speak. It started with geeks doing video game reviews and such, but fast forward to today and you got stuff like Epic Rap Battles or Red Letter Media (for a smaller example). I think you’re right in time we’ll see Hollywood become obsolete as it’s entirely decentralized. Just looking at the current “talent” in Hollywood shows they can’t replace their aging actors with actually talented actors (there’s some, but not enough).

    2. No intelligent person is going to read a post that begins with an obscenity…

  15. another one to watch is hostile waters with rutger hauer as a russian captain in trouble off bermuda…..

  16. Yes, a marvellous film and one of my favourites. In the Royal Navy I served with some great captains and some poor ones. There were men you knew you could trust your life to and if necessary, risk it at their orders. But there were others who lost it under pressure: men who’d vent their tension with screaming and shouting just as things were getting tough. Not good.
    Very few men are naturals at the kind of leadership Prochnow portrayed. It’s bought through hard experience, brutal lessons and uncompromising debriefs from their own mentors. The Kapitanleutnant would once have been a green young officer who’d had to learn fast and take the knocks, but he did and he matured into a paragon. There’s a lesson there.
    I was once drinking with a German U-Boat crew in a bar in Norway when, after the fifth or sixth beer, the subject of this film came up. We’d all been good bar-room buddies up to that point but then some bright spark commented about the horrendous losses they’d taken at the hands of the Royal Navy. Heads swivelled in my direction and they weren’t smiling anymore, so I made a diplomatic exit!

  17. You’ve inspired me to watch the movie, Quintus. I’ve long wanted to, but have not yet made the time for it.
    My dearest friend became a nuclear tech for the Navy, and specifically applied to serve aboard a submarine because women were still not allowed on them at that time. He had dealt with enough “empowered women” in basic, to know that he did not want to have to depend on them, let alone obey them. Reading this, it pains me to think how much is lost by allowing women to intrude upon the deadly serious band of brotherhood that exists amongst warriors in tight spots. I think every man, despite the hardships that would be involved aboard a submarine, feels his heart beat a bit faster at the idea of serving in such circumstances, where his entire being will be pushed to the apex of its potential. How sad, to think that some broad would be permitted to come aboard and bitch about having to share bunks and showers…

    1. Yes, absolutely I agree with this, Cui. The exclusion of women from the sanctified halls of masculinity is a requirement for the perpetuation of the masculine ethos. It cannot exist in an adulterated form.

  18. I do not speak German, but I bought this movie (and another one, “Der Untergang”) in their original version, and I watched them with English subtitles, to get the emotions as close as possible to the “real things”.

  19. I just finished watching it, having heard about it since the days of Siskel and Ebert reviewing it (two thumbs up, I believe). It is such a great movie, to be sure, but I thought the ending was pretty disappointing. The version I watched was the director’s cut version available through Netflix. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone by going in to detail, but there seemed to be a clear moment when the film could have ended that perhaps is how is was released in theaters back in ’81(?).

    1. The ending is a real ‘heartbreaker’ — just like the ending of “Glory”.
      OT: did any other veterans here get a chuckle at the ‘basic training’ scenes in “Glory”? (I went through it myself in Navy boot camp — being sworn at, ‘worked out’, etc.; ironically, I’m white and our Company Commander was black!)
      When “Glory” was released on DVD, I was home on pre-deployment leave at my folk’s house, and both my brothers were visiting. I had the DVD going, and when the ‘basic training’ scenes came on, I starting chuckling and looked over at my youngest brother (another Navy vet); he looked back at me and we both started chuckling and grinning; we looked over at our Dad (an Army vet) and he was already grinning; he looked back at both of us and all three of us started chuckling and grinning. Both my Mom and my other brother were puzzled and wanted to know what was so funny…

  20. One of the best articles on this site. “Das Boot” is simply a life-changer. The other film I highly recommend for the same reasons is “Master and Commander”.

  21. People who post comments on threads that are many months old are usually trolls trying to build a history of posts. “Das Troll” = Sauron666 in this case. Check it out, “he” just got here days ago and is posting on all sorts of old threads.

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