Commissario Brunetti - the TV Series


German TV adaptations of Donna Leon's Brunetti novels have been running since 2000. I'd long been frustrated by the German DVDs having no English subtitles when in early 2009 I had my (atheist's) prayers answered by a mystery donor of seven subtitled episodes. Each German season initially had two episodes but in recent years the schedule has changed to one a year and each episode runs for a satisfying 90 minutes. The actors playing Brunetti and his wife were changed four episodes in. This is said to have been caused by Joachim Król, the first Brunetti, not being willing to commit to the time required for filming two episodes a year, and this scheduling eating into his theatre commitments. All of the subtitled episodes below were aired first by Washington TV station MHz. Twenty-two of the Brunetti novels have now been filmed by the Germans.

In early 2009 Donna Leon was telling audiences at signings that she was in talks with the BBC about making new Brunetti adaptations. Nothing came of this, supposedly because of the BBC's decision to film Michael Dibdin's Zen novels instead. The fact that these latter adaptations where not a success, ratings wise, has presumably put the kibosh on any future filming of the Brunetti series.
Donna L. is very sharp on the weaknesses of the German adaptations here.

Since 2011 MHz networks have been releasing double-dvds of subtitled episodes in the US. All 18 episodes reviewed below are now available. (Click here for details.) I should mention that being American the DVDs are Region 1 and will only play on an American or multi-region DVD player. Or if you watch DVDs on your computer there is free software that'll make your PC region-free. MHz don't ship abroad, but Amazon do.

The US DVDs usually stick to the book titles rather than using the German episode titles, except the first one, so I've done the same.



March 2015 News It seems that Donna Leon is preventing any new episodes - from number 19 onwards - from being released with English subtitles. Which is a darn shame, as we've come this far.

September 2016 News
Keep it to yourself but an unofficially subtitled version of the German Brunetti TV series episode from 2015,
21. Beastly Things, has come my way. The subtitles look a bit machine-translated, with a tendency to nonsense,
 but it still looks pretty watchable. I'll do so and report back.


 




1. Vendetta 2000

This was the first in the series and is adapted from the novel A Venetian Reckoning (aka Death and Judgment). The plot involves the murder of a lawyer, people trafficking and snuff movies.  To begin with the actor playing Brunetti (Joachim Król) seems a bit too cuddly, and he never really casts off this fluffy geography teacher aura for me, although he does toughen up a bit towards the end. Overall the adaptation impressively retains the realism, not to say cynicism, of the novels. I found the rest of the cast convincing, but I didn't picture
the fascinating Signorina Elettra as quite this young and attractive. The music grates a bit occasionally, overdoing the jaunty music when Brunetti's at home, for example, and the discordant chords when someone's unhappy answering a question, thereby rather over-emphasising the tension. There's a satisfying  amount of real Venice on show, although the usual poetically-licensed leaping around Venice between cuts is not unusual. The Brunetti family home is authentically located very close to where they live in the books and so they eat on a large terrace on the corner of the Rio San Polo with a spectacular view across the Grand Canal. Also the ex-convent in front of San Francesco della Vigna stands in inauthentically as the police headquarters building (see above right) which is actually opposite the church of San Lorenzo in the books. Having so long looked forward to seeing one of these I was not disappointed, and have been left keenly anticipating the next one...
 






 

2. The Anonymous Venetian 2000
The second adaptation again deals with a murder in Mestre, this time it's a transvestite found out back of an abattoir. Again it's a quality piece of work, reminiscent of the TV adaptations of the Inspector Morse stories with their subtlety and emotional depth. Brunetti differs from Morse in that his life is centred on his family, and that's well brought out here, with the scenes between Brunetti and his wife serving to do more than just give the characters a chance to précis plot developments. I still found the music intrusive at times, and there's lots of Venice and lots of liberties with location again too. A swoop on a flat said to be in San Barnaba sees the police launches setting out from the vicinity of Rio San Barnaba and heading towards the North side of the Accademia Bridge and ending up in a block of apartments just off the Strada Nova near the railway station! Also everyone's home and office, no matter where it's positioned, has a grand sweeping view of the Grand Canal. And as for the Brunetti's plush flat and its modest little terrace...(see left).

3. Fatal Remedies
2002
The third adaptation jumps forward a few novels. This is the one where Paola, Brunetti's wife, chucks a rock through a travel agent's window to protest his involvement in sex tourism and the encouragement of child prostitution. The plot develops into murder and associated nastiness involving the murder-victim's pharmaceutical factory. So, more filming in Mestre, as the Venetian islands tend not to have many factory complexes. In Venice the travel agent's premises are in the campo in front of San Nicolo da Tolentino and the church's portico shelters Brunetti and Paola whilst they have a heated discussion following the discovery of the murder victim. The Palazzo Molin (the one with the garden, opposite the Palazzo Barbaro, by the Accademia bridge) is used as the home of the victim, and his wife (right). It seems to me that there are no wrong feet placed anywhere here -  even the music behaves itself and settles into suitability this time, so I have no grounds for quibbles. Except...I'm still worried by the plushness of the Brunettis' apartment. Could a Commissario and a teacher really afford to live somewhere this grand, overlooking the Grand Canal?
 




 

4. A noble radiance 2002
This is the last episode with cuddly Joachim Król as Brunetti (pictured on the right in the picture left - the other one's Vianello, who stays the course). It begins with a discovery of bones, which reopens an old kidnapping case. The wealthy family involved turn out to have plenty of cupboard-skeletons too, and things get messy, of course. Emotions are stirred up, and the acting gets more intense, in the Brunetti family too, as Guido's father-in-law accuses him of neglecting Paola. A bit more variety of emotion for the actors playing Brunetti and Paola to get their teeth into, as I say, just before they both get the sack. Plenty of Venice, as usual, but nothing special to report as far as locations or location-gaffs are concerned. Me, I noticed more crane shots.



5. Death at La Fenice
2003
New season, new actor playing Brunetti - Uwe Kockisch (see right). There's a new actress playing his wife too, which is just as well as otherwise it would have felt like adultery; but she's not as immediately convincing as the previous Paola. For the story we jump right back in the novel sequence to the very first Brunetti novel. A famous conductor is murdered mid-performance at the Fenice opera house and Brunetti is then pushed relentlessly by Patta due to the height of the case's profile. There's a lesbian element, and some accusations of child abuse, in a plot which has all the quiet subtlety and inter-plot echoes of Ms Leon's maturer stuff. The new Brunettis were a bit of a shock, but leaving only a day between watching this and the previous episode probably made matters more disturbing than would have been the case with the actual gap of a year between seasons. We'll see. The other actors are all the same as previously. Location wise the highlights are the shiny palazzo interiors this time, with a squalid 'real' interior too, and the home of someone who's merely very wealthy.

 


 

Signorina Elettra's office near San Francesco della Vigna, which has a  geographically miraculous view over the Grand Canal to San Samuele, with a balustrade outside her window very like that on the top floor of the Palazzo Stern, which is just opposite San Samuele.






 





 




6. Friends in High Places
2003
The one where a city official tells Brunetti that his flat is liable to demolition if planning permission documents can't be found, and then gets himself murdered. There's also Patta's son fingered for drug dealing and Brunetti's extreme fear for his daughter in a world full of drugs. And two more murders. So, as you can see, the novel that this is based on is from back in the days when Donna liked to have lots of plot, unlike later character-based books where you wait in vain for someone to get themselves murdered. On screen there's loads of Venice, of course, and mostly geographical liberties are not taken, at least with the walks and the boat trips.  The ex-convent in front of San Francesco della Vigna still stands in for the Questura HQ, and the windows from the offices within still miraculously look out onto the Grand Canal, which is miles away. I don't know if the supposed interior staircase is actually in that building, but it sure is pretty. The offices of the Venice planning department are sited in the pseudo-gothic apartment block on the way to the Sant'Angelo vaporetto stop. You can tell it's the planning department because every time it's shown a person with a long tube of plans walks out (see below left). The scaffolding-covered building that's supposed to be apartments is actually the back of the Ca' Foscari University building, which is why there are so many students in the background. The final shooty showdown at a flat by the Frari even keeps its location authenticity for the interior, um, shots. Impressive. The German/Italian jarring I noticed this time is having the German-speaking cast saying buon giorno.

 

 

 

7. Quietly in Their Sleep 2004
The novel is called Death of Faith in the UK, which title better indicates a story very much to do with religion, organised and personal. A nun from the home where Brunetti's mother is staying comes to him with accusations that the recent deaths of residents are not accidents. She then gets pushed under a bus, and Brunetti starts to investigate. Other strands see Brunetti's daughter flirting with organised religion, much to her parents' disapproval, under the influence of a handsome teacher-priest. There's also a visit by a Swiss policeman who is much in sympathy with Brunetti, but who doesn't appear in the original book at all. The light-relief he provides is of a piece with the other, considerable, changes from the book. In fact let's make a list:

1. The Swiss policeman already mentioned
2. Brunetti's mother's Alzheimer's has been written out, so she becomes a sweet, if self-willed, old charmer and is featured much more.
3. The mysterious and suspicious Opus Dei, in real life and the book, becomes the fictional Opera Pio, for some cowardly reason.
4. Their sinister reach makes for a different ending from the book for the run-down nun, which I'll not risk spoiling your viewing by revealing.
5. In the book there are two wicked priests, one of whom doesn't make it to the film.
6. The young, attractive and fanatically-religious daughter of one of the elderly victims was a woman in her 50s in the book.
7. In the book the nun is knocked off her bike by a car.
8. In the final showdown Brunetti gets a knife wound in the book, not shot.

In location developments the interiors of the police headquarters have all changed since the last episode. The staircase (pictured above), offices and views from the windows have all changed, although the building's exterior remains the ex-convent in front of San Francesco della Vigna. There are more geographically impossible leaps between cuts this time too, with corners turned jumping from Dorsoduro to Cannaregio, and then swiftly back. A character enters the Gesuiti church near the beginning, but the church interior used after she enters is San Francesco della Vigna itself.  And I have to just mention the nun getting hit by a bus. The action takes place on the Lido, as Venice itself has so few roads, presumably, but she actually gets run down by a black van. Maybe Actv weren't willing to loan the film makers a bus, or have it involved in attempted murder, but why the characters have to still keep calling it a bus beats me too. And then there's the nursing home, with it's garden facing onto the Grand Canal, (see right) where no nursing home could afford to be, surely. The gardening nun also appears whenever we visit.


With thanks to Carlo & Richard for spotting the plot changes.
 






Is it ever this bustling up by the Gesuiti,

 



8. Acqua Alta
2004
The lesbian couple from Episode 5. Death at La Fenice turn up again, but this time it's the unconvincingly named Brett Lynch, the art expert, who is in trouble, She's discovered that a pair of valuable vases due to be returned to China after an exhibition have been swapped with forgeries. She gets beaten up to stop her telling the museum curator, and when Brunetti starts following the trail of partners and money people start getting murdered. And the plot starts unravelling. This one is just so full of plot-holes and people behaving stupidly and out of character that soon all you're doing is admiring them water-filled streets. There's some sub-plot involving Brunetti's wife doing up their flat (and the daughter getting a gross injured toe) that seems to have nothing to do with anything, apart from maybe continuing the smashed vase motif. I've not read the book that this one's based on, but either Donna L. was having an off day, or the plot here has been vilely mangled. Some nice palazzo interiors, but otherwise nothing special location-wise. Except maybe the bizarre end-titles film of a Ferrovia vaporetto stop chuntering along under the Rialto Bridge (see left).
 
9. Doctored Evidence 2005
An old woman is murdered, and suspicion falls on her Romanian cleaning woman. The suspect is inefficiently almost-nabbed at the railway station and falls to her death, into the canal in front of Sant'Andrea della Zirada, before the monorail was built (see right). (This church also gets some gentle floodlighting in a later scene, like it never does in real life.) As Brunetti is in England for his hols his boss Patta 'solves' the case, so that when Brunetti returns he has to get to the truth - a process that turns out to be far from simple. The hateful character of the old woman is a factor, and there's corruption aplenty, involving false qualifications amongst other things. There's also an embarrassing sub-plot involving Brunetti's son Raffi falling for his sister's Japanese penpal. Much of the filming is up in Cannaregio this time, although the murdered woman's house is just down from the San Barnaba fruit and veg boat. In an interview accompanying the broadcast of this episode Uwe Kockisch, the actor who plays Brunetti, reveals the difficulties of filming in a city full of tourists and that getting permission to film is such a problem that when they get it they tend to film all they can in that area, which explains this episode's Cannaregio-centric nature, including a scene supposedly showing the Brunettis arriving home filmed up there too, although we all know that he lives in San Polo by the Rialto. Also in Cannaregio is the Liceo Classico Foscarini (see right) which stands in for the college Patta tries to finesse his son into, and features again in episode 14.





The cloister of the Liceo Classico Foscarini, which used to be
the convent of Santa Caterina, in Cannaregio.
 



10. Uniform Justice 
2005

This one is based on the novel which dealt with a 'suicide' at a military academy. It moves the action to the naval school in the Arsenale and so we get some authentic peeks into the Arsenale. (But the interior dormitory corridor was actually filmed in the San Giorgio Maggiore complex.) We also get a plot mixing homophobia and high-level corruption, with another unremembered subplot, but this time it does echo the main plot, being to do with Raffi shadowing his father at work and so adding a bit of extra depth to the underlying theme of father-son relationships. The other sub-sub-plot, involving Vianello's plans for a museum of Venetian crime, makes somewhat less sense. Another negative is that the military bullying being conducted mostly in shouted German makes for some unfortunate Nazi overtones, but that's probably due to my Brit background watching old war films on TV as a child.  On the picky location-mangling front, this one does have the Brunetti's entering their flat's front door up in Cannaregio, again, when it's aforementioned grand terrace overlooks the Grand Canal near San Polo far to the South East.

11. Death in a Strange Country
2006

With the passing of the years there's a certain slickness creeping in, with a tendency towards gratuitous misty and touristy sunrises and sunsets bracketing each day's action. In the novel sequence we're back to the second Brunetti novel. It's the one with the dead American soldier and the rich crook friend of Brunetti's rich father-in-law and his shady toxic waste business. Although one doubts he's as smart as he makes out if he dumps the barrels of nasty stuff but doesn't bother to paint out the words 'US Army' stencilled on the side. Having American characters only adds to the weird language and translation decisions and dislocations. Having German-speaking supposedly-Italian characters is odd enough, but when the characters switch between Italian greetings and colloquialisms and German ones and, as here, you get 'American' soldiers speaking English with a German accent the mind becomes truly mangled. Geography gets a bit mangled too with a meeting 'in front of the Arsenale' actually taking place behind the Scuola di San Rocco. Also when Signorina Elettra goes to sit on the balustrade outside her office (see left) the canal outside switches from the usually-viewed stretch of Grand Canal to a side canal. This seems to be the Fondamenta di Soccorso, as the series also uses the Palazzo Zenobio androne for some interiors of the questura. But the nasty industrialist's palazzo (Loredan) is consistently dealt with, having all approaches, departures and views matching up with reality. The plot is played fast-and-loose with, though, acquiring a dramatic chase across rooftops, for example, and an un-Leonishly neat surprise resolution. There's also an added 'humourous' subplot involving Brunetti's son Raffi setting himself up in business selling some umbrellas with pink elephants on that his grandmother has inherited. I don't remember this from the book, and it's not what you'd call a clever reflection of the main plot. So, slicker this time, as I say, but satisfying entertainment nonethless.

 








 


12. A Sea of Troubles
2006
A couple of fishermen are murdered on Pellestrina in a suspicious boat fire, but nobody's talking. Brunetti and Vianello are universally stonewalled by the suspicious locals so it falls to
Signorina Elletra to volunteer to go and stay with her cousin, earn the trust of the locals, fall for the brother of the murderer, and almost get herself murdered. So this is her episode, where she gets to be centre-stage undercover and to stroll sexily around Pellestrina in her holiday togs; bizarrely, because the poor sods in Venice are all dressed up in their winter coats. Also odd is the sudden jealousy of Brunetti's wife when he gets all worried about Signorina E's safety. It's all about tax evasion and mussel fishing, and is about as exciting as that sounds. Lots of filming on Pellestrina, unsurprisingly, and a couple of Dorsoduro-centric scenes of walking and meeting, including one with an impressive opening crane shot involving Brunetti and Vianello strolling from a scaffolding-clad San Pantelon into Campo Santa Margherita. The island's seafront church (see the screen grab left) gets a few looks in, and there's a final dramatic confrontation on an island with big old wartime bunker-type buildings. Not my favourite episode.
13. Wilful Behaviour 2007
This one was better, with a plot about the wartime acquisition of art on the cheap, and by outright theft. This subject, of (mostly Jewish) families forced out of their home countries by the rise of fascism and forced to sell their valuables cheap to pay for their escape, has become a hot one in recent years, with more distant relatives taking to the courts even as those who actually suffered, but survived, are dying. The story here involves a 'nationalist' library, and its creepy chief's attempt to acquire by nefarious means some valuable and ill-gotten art. There's a will involved, hence the bad-pun title. A loveless marriage, self-deception and jealousy also contribute to the tragic stew here, along with a daft mirroring sub-plot of Brunetti's daughter resorting to feminism after being dumped by a boyfriend. This strand also provides us with the scene of a feminist protest outside the church of San Stae where Brunetti's daughter is briefly arrested (see right). Another piece of plot fluff is provided by a new and attractive female Commissario starting work, and introducing Patta to feng shui and other Eastern fads. This leads to her taking him to a posh restaurant where he suffers tofu pasta. As if there's any such place in Venice serving
veggie food! Locations also include the garden of the Palazzo Zenobio (at the end of the episode), the campo in front of San Giacomo dell’Orio, and a goodly selection of interiors.



 





 

 

 

14. Blood from a Stone 2008
An African is shot in front of the church of San Felice, and another runs away bleeding. Brunetti's attempt to find the killer leads him into the squalid lives of the fake bag sellers, the plans of the bleeding man and the corrupt influence of national government. Patta, Brunetti's boss, is warned off
with stories of terrorist cells but the truth is more basic and corruption-based. The plot is changed considerably, seemingly to make for more action and visual business and less chat. Aside from the aforementioned church, we get some scenes around the interesting dilapidated block of 1950s flats I mentioned in my 2009 trip to Venice (see left), a lunch eaten in the campo behind San Sebastiano, a restaurant seemingly established in the campo outside San Giorgio Maggiore (see below left), and Brunetti's front door is once again in Cannaregio, although his apartment is way over in San Polo. The Christmas setting of the book is high summer here and we have three pointless 'humourous' subplots this time - Vianello's new baby keeping him sleep-deprived, Signorina Elletra's feud with the office mouse, and Brunetti's difficulty choosing a birthday present for his wife, which features that embarrassing old standby - the hapless man taking a bra with him shopping. Brunetti visits his old mum too, in the home where she's always to be found in the picturesque garden on the Grand Canal, with the gardening nun. This episode's censoring blurring is of a bosom in a background painting. A bit overloaded with added and pointless funny business (to balance the seriousness of the issues?) but a solid episode if you look beyond the laughs.

15. Through a Glass Darkly 2009
The one set mostly on Murano, involving the murder of a glassworks owner and the subsequent revelation of illegal lagoon poisoning. The episode puts the murder right at the beginning of the story, where it takes a while to happen in the book. And the glassworks owner's daughter is here still just being courted by the eco-centric mayoral candidate, where they're a married couple in the book. Added sub-plots see Patta brushing up on his touchy-feely management techniques, to frowns all round; and Brunetti's con-artist aunt visiting and working some scams. One of these involves this episode's location highlight - the use of a garden just over the canal from the San Trovaso boatyard (see right). Other than that it's generic canal-side scenes in Venice and on Murano, some unpretty glass factory interiors and the roof-terrace of the mayoral candidate's swanky Grand Canal-side palazzo. A nicely gritty and grim sort of episode, with more murders than laughs, which is how it should be. For some reason only one episode got made for 2009.
 


16. Suffer the Little Children 2010
The one about shady baby trafficking involving illegal immigrants. There are also strands featuring macho Carabinieri to be liaised with and softened up, a wealthy right-wing politician throwing money at life's problems and a dubious and self-righteous pharmacist. A full and twisty plot, then, to which the programme makers have added a weird sub-plot about Brunetti's daughter being switched at birth for three days and now wanting to meet the other mother and her daughter, the girl she was swapped up with. There's also some business about Patta going on a sabbatical and thinking everyone's going to be distressed at his departure. But most drastically a major murder element has been added too, to a story previously murder-free. The often jarring bits of added light relief are kept small this time, though, and the grit shines through in an episode allowed to be tragic - in some ways it's grimmer than the book. Locations, apart from the usuals, include Campo San Zanipolo, the Palazzo Molin (used in episode three above) and some pretty motor-boat rides down back canals. An interior purporting to be Palazzo Molin is pretty sumptuous too (see left) but as to whether it is actually this palazzo... Pedants might also wince when a meeting is arranged in Campo (not Piazza) San Marco.
 
17. The Girl of his Dreams 2010
A young girl's body is found in a canal with stolen jewellery in her pockets. It turns out she's from a Roma camp on the mainland and a story unfolds of young lives blighted and prejudices both confirmed and confounded. There's much pleasing ambiguity, then, and a thoughtful tone is maintained. The counterpoint (with its jaunty background music) is provided by Patta insisting on his force taking a political-correctness exam. And of course he fails it. But even here the relationship to the real world, where such gestures are seen for what they are, is telling and touching. There's also the death of Brunetti's mother, which causes him to ponder how important choices are made and lives subsequently affected. The overall theme being how leaving or staying affects futures. Not sure I see the plotting point of having Brunetti's kids clearing their grandmother's room at the nursing home and turning up the woman's late-life admirers though. The action is pretty Dorsoduro-centric, like the other 2010 episode above, for its casual picturesque locations and protagonists' flats, with a showdown in the Arsenale and some wandering into San Polo and Santa Croce, including the burglary victims' flat being just by one of my favourite lunch spots, the Fondamanta Malcanton. A serious and sensible episode.
 



18. About Face 2012
Retitled by the Germans Looks are Deceiving, presumably because About Face as a phrase doesn't have the same colloquial ambiguity in German, this is the one about toxic waste disposal and the Mafia. There's a high body count and an attractive suspect for Brunetti to flirt and swap book talk with - she being the one who's had work done on her face and who inspires the title. Brunetti's father-in-law is involved too, and there's much satisfying ambiguity in motives and resolution. There's also an interspersed piece of business about Brunetti's boss Patta being weeks from retirement and wanting a last bit of action or glory, which isn't played for quite the usual amount of laughs and even gets a bit touching. Apart from the usual plot rearrangements here the weather's hot, unlike the book's snowy backdrop, but then again these films are always made in summer. Grubby dockside locations up the west end of Dorsoduro feature heavily, with also a chase back east from there taking in the churches of Angelo Raffaele and Santa Maria Maggiore. More San Marco and Doge's Palace than usual, and numerous views from various plush palazzi on the Grand Canal. There's the return of the censor's blurring too, in the TV-transmitted version, with a large painting in a commercial gallery, presumably featuring nude bodies, looking very like a mass of pink fog. Another temptingly straight and serious-toned episode.




19. A Question of Belief
2013
They called it Auf Treu und Glauben (In Good Faith). The action was mostly centred around Cannaregio this time, with a funeral in the Madonna dell'Orto.

20. Drawing Conclusions
(Reiches Erbe)
2014




21. Beastly Things (Tierische Profite)
2015
I managed to get a copy of this with unofficial English subtitles, which look to have been computer-translated from the German DVD subtitles for the hearing impaired as they include stuff like *a dog barks*. They therefore get a bit nonsensical and garbled at times but are still followable, and the drama survives, in one of the series' grimmer tales, which for once gets it's light-relief trimmed back for TV. This is the one about animal rights activism and law-flouting abattoirs with powerful criminal owners. Brunetti's daughter Chiara is mixed up in it too, and there's a cute dog. The nastiness of the treatment of the animals in the abattoir is not graphically shown - mostly we just see mobile-phone film of cows being roughly marshalled with discordant horror-film noises in the background and location shots of nasty shiny spikes and choppers. No lack of sunny Venice location-spotting though.  There are scenes around La Maddalena, plenty of canals to track, a christening in a church I suspect is the Pieta, and a hospital where there is no hospital, next to the Ognissanti church. The subtitles got so incomprehensible in the final confession to Brunetti, though, that I was left uncertain  who the murderer was. Details!





22. The Golden Egg
(Das goldene Ei)
2016
Broadcast in Germany 31.3.2016
News of the filming of the two new episodes above reached me in June 2014, some of it at the Ca' Zenobio.

23. By its Cover
(
Tod zwischen den Zeilen)

24. Falling in Love
(
Endlich mein)

'The two new episodes are expected to be broadcast in 2017 and 2018' says the German website.
 
















   


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