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The interaction of intense light with matter gives rise to competing nonlinear responses that can dynamically change material properties. Prominent examples are saturable absorption (SA) and two-photon absorption (TPA), which dynamically increase and decrease the transmission of a sample depending on pulse intensity, respectively. The availability of intense soft X-ray pulses from free-electron lasers (FEL) has led to observations of SA and TPA in separate experiments, leaving open questions about the possible interplay between and relative strength of the two phenomena. Here, we systematically study both phenomena in one experiment by exposing graphite films to soft X-ray FEL pulses of varying intensity, with the FEL energy tuned to match carbon 1s to π∗ or 1s to σ∗ transitions. It is observed for lower intensities that the nonlinear contribution to the absorption is dominated by SA attributed to ground-state depletion; for larger intensities (>1014 W/cm2), TPA becomes more dominant. The relative strengths of the two phenomena depend in turn on the specific transition driven by the X-ray pulse. Both observations are consistent with our real-time electronic structure calculations. Our results reveal the competing contributions of distinct nonlinear material responses to spectroscopic signals measured in the X-ray regime, demonstrating an approach of general utility for interpreting FEL spectroscopies.

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