Deus to Diabolus ex Machina: Ancient Technique in Two Postmodern Films

Alongside teaching grammar rules and techniques on how to write more effective prose in my English Composition courses, I also like to show films that relate to some of the topics we discuss in class. One such film is No Man’s Land, directed by Danis Tanovic. Aside from being an atypical war film, this Serbian film is also a meditation on the absurdity of war, chronicling the struggle between two soldiers from opposing sides caught in a trench. The pair must try and work out their differences in order to survive the day while caring for a third soldier who’s lying on a mine.

The best part of the film by far is its ending (don’t worry, no “SPOILER WARNING” needed; I won’t give it away!) It comes to pass through a divine intervention of sorts using the ancient theatrical plot device of deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” in which by the conclusion of a play or film, a figure of power enters the scene just when it seems that the conflict can’t be resolved by traditional means; this figure either sets things right or, in some instances, makes matters worse. In No Man’s Land, the UN inadvertently gets involved in a situation, and they encounter a wall that won’t move. Enter Colonel Soft, the UN’s main officer, via helicopter to clean up the mess.

However, Colonel Soft enters this fray of all-too-human affairs as a god but emerges more like a devil from the machine. The end of No Man’s Land isn’t exactly an uplifting Disney song and dance celebration. When the characters leave the battlefield of Tanovic’s film, the audience is left with a sick feeling within while the film’s haunting score trails off into the credits. It makes for a powerful finale to a poignant story, though differs greatly from classic war films like Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now.

Another of my favorite films that makes use of the deus ex machina is Richard Kelley’s cult masterpiece (and, sadly, his only success) Donnie Darko. (okay, so for this one there’s a “SPOILER ALERT”––but really, if you’ve never seen Donnie Darko, for shame!) Towards the film’s conclusion, the title character and his friends are attacked on Halloween night by masked high school hooligans. Donnie’s love interest gets hurled into the street. A red Camaro screeches down the road and tumbles over her, then whirls around and menacingly stares through its headlights at the horrified kids. The passenger side door opens, and from inside the machine emerges a clown. From the driver’s side steps out the dark rabbit that’d been haunting Donnie’s mind since the first minutes of the film.

One of the most harrowing moments in Donnie Darko.

A devil figure in the form of a demonic Easter bunny and a trickster archetype perfectly conformed to Colonel Soft in No Man’s Land. Each of these characters paves a road for more terrible truckloads of hell to arrive shortly after their divine intervention. This sounds more to me like these are diabolus ex machina endings, which may be the next evolution of this ancient theatrical device.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is that the deus ex machina may have been partly responsible for the death of tragedy in ancient Greece and, consequently, the birth of what we call “drama”––a welterweight brand of tragedy. When the ancient playwright Euripides, for instance, ended his tragedies with a deus ex machina ending, it suddenly became a happy story. StageAgent sites a play called Alcestis, in which the protagonist is rescued from death by Hercules. And in Medea, the playwright’s most well-known work, the title character, who has just murdered her children, is escorted to Athens in a golden chariot pulled by dragons. In each, the characters are rescued, seeing as the protagonist in the first play volunteers to kill herself to save her husband, and Medea kills her children to stab at the heart of her two-timing husband Jason.

The deus ex machina ending in action.

This diabolus ex machina ending, however, seems to bring back the true integrity of tragedy, restoring an empathetic value that had been somewhat diluted since the days of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Today, people tend to reserve the term “tragedy” for real events that cost thousands of lives when back in the day it was tragic enough in an artistic sense to discover that you inadvertently killed your father and are now married to your mother. (Today, a situation like this can easily be remedied by an appearance on Maury.) But in No Man’s Land, there is no easy way out, and definitely no happy ending. Instead, we walk away from the closing credits with those characters burned into our brains.

The general consensus is that the deus ex machina ending is a sham ending, and is criticized harshly if ever used today, most notably by screenwriting guru Robert McKee in the film Adaptation. I even get all shy-faced when I have to teach my humanities classes about how the ancient Greeks used a crane to lift an actor masked as a god into the skene. (“The Greeks,” I’d say, “gave us so many wonderful things. And then they gave us this!”) But I think that when used to bring about empathy or an unexpected turn of events, this darker sort of the deus ex machina ending can prove quite powerful for a writer, as expertly demonstrated in both No Man’s Land and Donnie Darko.

Perhaps the only thing that can be left out is making the characters announce that what’s about to occur is, in fact, a deus ex machina ending.

What are some movies (or books, TV shows, etc.) that YOU’ve seen which have a memorable deus ex machina ending? Make a list in the Comments section below.

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2 thoughts on “Deus to Diabolus ex Machina: Ancient Technique in Two Postmodern Films

  1. No Man’s land is Bosnian film… just for the record… 🙂

    1. And that’s the reason it’s so poignant! It’s not an American “blow stuff up” war film. (No offense to the American masterpieces I mentioned in the post, though, and also Full Metal Jacket!) 🙂

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