**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.**
Why the Eurovision Song Contest Is Not Like American Idol
Europe has a bloody past. Wars of conquest, religion, revolution, genocide, and contested kingship have perennially sprouted from its soil. There are too many deaths to count, too many battles and horrors to hold in memory, though a few names still ring in our ears… the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cold War. In 1946, Winston Churchill1 called Europeans to look toward the future, to allow the horrors of the past (and of World War II in particular) to sink into oblivion through an “act of faith in the European family” and the recreation of a “European fabric.” This faith and this fabric took shape in the United Nations and in the European Union. But could these organizations alone turn a tenuous peace into a long-standing habit? Or would Europe and its Eastern bloc neighbors need more than political and economic blueprints to keep past violence in the past, and not let it break out afresh?
Unlike American talent shows which cull the bizarre during try-outs, Eurovision is known for its eccentricity and surprises: it’s as much a family reunion as a talent show.In 1956, the European Broadcasting Union mixed up a patriotic pop culture cocktail—the Eurovision Song Contest—for the countries within its network. It was an effort to draw different cultures into a common game, a form of “musical diplomacy.” Over the decades, as more and more countries have joined in the play, the competition has proven itself to be a creative and adaptable cultural liturgy. It provides a yearly occasion for Europeans to listen to their neighbors and cast votes for those outside their own borders, while at the same time honoring local loyalties and the love of home. Every year, people across the continent gather in homes and pubs, forming “watch parties” to enjoy the show.
Eurovision has morphed significantly from its conventional 1950s beginnings. Sequined costumes and leotards, light shows and pyrotechnics, acrobatic dancing troupes and vast quantities of kitsch have all become part of the Europop package deal, as each year grows more outrageous than the last. Unlike American talent shows which cull the bizarre during try-outs, Eurovision is known for its eccentricity and surprises: it’s as much a family reunion as a talent show.
I’m positive that when Churchill roused his listeners to re-imagine the European family, ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the debut of Riverdance were not what he had in mind. But who said that salvation from the “infinite misery” and “final doom” he warned of had to be serious? “Through the Eurovision Song Contest, Europe is imagined, performed and translated into the universal language of music”2 in a manner which is at times touching, often hilarious, and always spectacular.
Laughing Through Loss with Fire Saga
Spectacle is fertile ground for parody, and Eurovision is spectacle par excellence, one that many Americans have never heard of till recently (myself included). Who better than actor Will Ferrell—master of the man-child and sincerest of fools—to introduce us to a musical festival that can’t decide whether to take itself seriously or not? Is Eurovision ridiculous? Or is it a key cultural and emotional strategy for avoiding World War III? Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which began streaming on Netflix in June, is a musical romantic comedy starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. The film walks the line between satire and tribute in a way that only genuine affection and respect for the real-world phenomenon could achieve.
The movie follows childhood friends named Lars (Ferrell) and Sigrit (McAdams), who live in the tiny town of Húsavík, Iceland. They make music together as the band Fire Saga, practicing in Lars’s basement and performing folk songs in local pubs for their neighbors. While Lars has dreamed of winning the Eurovision Song Contest for his entire life, Sigrit has dreamed of starting a life and a family with Lars. She’s willing to support his dream in the hope that victory might shake his single-minded focus and open the door for romance.
And though Lars and Sigrit may look like adults, they are actually children playing dress-up. Sigrit—innocent, happy, and playful—retains the best parts of youth, while Lars retains the worst. He is embarrassingly self-centered, competitive, fixated on impossible dreams, and clueless about the burdens of adult responsibility. The sexual jokes that permeate the movie confirm their fourteen-going-on-forty status: bluster over “ding dongs” and going “sex nuts” are the stupid talk of middle school virgins. Lars and Sigrit may be fools, but they do (eventually) manage to grow up throughout the course of their adventure, with their sense of humor still intact.
Fire Saga’s performance in the Icelandic pre-selection competition collapses under Lars’s grandiosity: not only is he late getting on stage, but a harness designed to make him “fly” suddenly breaks mid-song, and he plummets to the floor. That should have been the end of their Eurovision hopes. But through a surprising “accident” (and possibly the intervention of benevolent elves) Fire Saga is nevertheless chosen to represent Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest.
When they arrive in Scotland for the competition, the current favorite for the title, Russian singer Alexander (Dan Stevens), takes them under his wing and invites them to a contestants’ party at his mansion. Lars warns Sigrit before they head to the festivities, “Remember, we don’t need friends, we need to win, ok?” Aside from a few instances of good-natured teasing, no one at the party is competitive—except Lars. “Win, lose, it doesn’t really matter,” shrugs the singer from Greece. The Eurovision participants would much rather sing together than against one another, as all join in a ritual, communal “song-a-long” in which solos and duets are passed around and the spotlight is shared in a mash-up medley of pop favorites. Opposition disappears in the glow of mutual encouragement. These apparent rivals are playing together, but they are not playing to win. They are playing to play, and they manage to get even Lars to play along.
When Fire Saga performs “Double Trouble” in the Eurovision semi-finals before an international audience, they are again sideswiped by catastrophe. Sigrit’s costume gets caught in the human-sized hamster wheel (yes, hamster wheel) in which Lars is cycling, and they are off to the races: he rolls off the stage into the crowd, dragging her along behind him for a belly flop onto the concrete. Bedraggled and limping, they crawl back on stage and finish their number before a shocked crowd that is silent (but for a few giggles). In disgrace, Lars heads for the door and ultimately for home, as Sigrit tries to make him stay. “I know I am more than this contest,” she tells Lars, as he retreats with his tail between his legs. Sigrit walks back to her seat—head held high, her dress torn and mascara running—to await the official results. The Icelanders who watched the debacle on the TV in Húsavík’s pub change the channel to a soccer game, unable to bear the shame, until one brave man admits, “We know they’re awful, but they’re OUR awful. I say we change the channel, and let’s take our medicine!” And they, like Sigrit, swallow their pride and face communal judgment, come what may.
Against all odds, Fire Saga actually receives enough votes from other countries to continue on to the final round. Back home in Iceland, Lars confronts his childishness, gives up his attempt to prove his worth through winning, and finally recognizes that what matters most is loving Sigrit. With this newfound wisdom (and the shock of realizing Fire Saga is still in the running), he rushes back to Scotland just in time to interrupt Sigrit’s attempt to sing “Double Trouble” in the finals all by herself. But this time when Lars walks on stage, it’s not to draw attention to himself, it’s not to win or to prove a point, but to support his friend. He sits down at the keyboard and plays the opening bars of a melody that Sigrit had been privately creating on the side, a love song for her hometown. This last minute change automatically disqualifies them from the contest, but Sigrit still gets to sing—from her heart to the whole world—a beautiful melody that intermingles English and Icelandic lyrics. Fire Saga loses the contest, but this time it’s not a consequence of self-inflicted disaster, but a gift of self-sacrifice and other-centeredness. And in that moment of (yet another) loss, they finally become a couple, they share Iceland’s beauty with the world, they restore their country’s dignity, and they grow up.
Sigrit’s song resonates in the hearts of other people—especially Icelanders, but even beyond that, in those from many different countries, and even in us, the film-viewing audience. This isn’t because we all know and love Iceland, but because we know and love our own hometowns, our own communities, our own families. Sigrit’s song invites harmony, not competition—the resonance of the audience to treasure what is dear to them, and leave space for others to experience their own treasuring.
Finite and Infinite Games
Most competition-oriented stories make the hero into a winner; the victorious underdog is a well-worn trope. But The Story of Fire Saga makes the hero transcend both winning and losing. It shows us how to mature past win-lose games into a form of infinite play that values process and relationships over victory. In his brilliant book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse says: “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite; the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
Lars’s journey mirrors the international aim of the real-life Eurovision: learning to volley instead of keeping score, valuing continuous play over conquest. The Story of Fire Saga shows us the bravery and lightheartedness required to keep playing after we lose, and how to play with indifference toward status. We never actually find out the winner of that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, because it doesn’t matter. The movie itself trains our attention to follow life after loss, to see its richness, connection, reinvention, and even joy. By putting our arms around the shoulders of that particular awfulness which is our awful, we can learn to see how genuinely small (and ultimately silly) all those finite wins and losses are, in light of eternity.[The Story of Fire Saga] shows us how to mature past win-lose games into a form of infinite play that values process and relationships over victory.
None of us is going to compete in Eurovision, but most of us have played the finite win-lose games of school, sports, dating, politics, job-hunting, promotion-seeking, garnering social media likes, and jockeying for status in a conversation. These are competitions that settle on a clear winner and award the titles we crave (valedictorian, champion, manager, spouse, winner of the argument) and the emblems we value (trophies, likes, subscribers, promotions, money).
Games we play “for the win” need not be toxic by necessity, though they often become so. A sense of humor, openness to others, and a willingness to be changed by life can take the claws out of competition, reframing it into something cooperative—an opportunity for all the participants to grow and adapt. Infinite players see themselves as much larger and more vital than any particular contest they engage in. As an infinite player, one can compete and lose, even lose in a humiliating way (like Fire Saga), and yet continue to face the future with hope and curiosity. Infinite players can laugh at themselves. Only finite players trapped in a win-lose framework take themselves too seriously.
Self-seriousness, with its intolerance of failure and loss, is a necessary ingredient for conflict, and on a large scale, for war. It’s fitting that this story of international televised disgrace is a comedy. By laughing at the fools we laugh at ourselves. This is both a form of honesty (I’m a fool too) and a vaccine against that delicious and dangerous habit of taking offense (How dare you make me look like a fool!). “If you want to tell people the truth,” Oscar Wilde said, “make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Comedy is an invitation to practice the art of getting over yourself. Every year that Eurovision continues to play, and that Europe doesn’t implode, is a bid for laughter over violence. It’s the choice of Churchill’s fabric and family over infinite misery.
When it comes to the finite game of war, every victory is now Pyrrhic. In the age of nuclear weapons, the game is self-terminating. World War III would be the last game anyone anywhere would ever play: hence the absolute necessity of infinite players who value continued play over winning their ideological or pragmatic point. To defer the pleasure of a triumphant conclusion, to refuse to see others as enemies, to just keep playing, is to keep the entire human race alive. The freedom to laugh at ourselves might just help save the world.
We can keep our inevitable contests healthy and helpful by situating competitive finite games inside the infinite game in which loss, failure, and even death are not game-enders, but are included in the play. In the infinite game, the point is not to win, it’s to continue playing, and to include more players in the process (which may require a change in the rules). Infinite players know that the game precedes and outlasts them; they know they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and so they are less vulnerable to the temptations of hoarding, envy, fear, rivalry, revenge, and the zero-sum dynamics which lead to violence.
The infinite game appears repeatedly in the words of Jesus, as He inverts our assumptions about loss and gain: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:24–26 ESV). Jesus changes the rules for the way natural opponents relate: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies…” (Matt. 5:43–44 NIV). Following Him will necessarily involve the transformation of our competitive impulses.
Jesus’ words about love, loss, and eternal value drive a wedge into the tightly packed arena of finite games that make up our lives, and create the possibility for something more, for something else. You don’t have to live this way, He whispers. Our daily bread and our daily trouble will come whether we worry and fight over them or not. But His yoke is easy and His burden is light: in communion with Him, finite games won’t be able to choke the life and charity out of us. We’ll be able to play (or not), to win (or not), without compulsion. There are practices which can loosen the stranglehold of busyness, anxiety, and rivalry that finite games inflict—music, laughter, and celebration; rest, forgiveness, and meditative prayer; curiosity, honest dialogue, and deeply attentive listening; surprises welcomed rather than resisted. Each one is a pin we can use to poke and deflate the self-seriousness of status games.
All earthly successes and failures are relativized by that infinite horizon we know as the Holy Trinity. The God who is beyond death, beyond all endings, let Himself be enclosed within a mortal timeline, inside a finite game which He lost: He let Himself be killed. But Christ took death, turned it back into life, and continues to play in the world in and through us. He invites us into this impossible surprise, this shuffling off of endings. The resurrection changes everything: if there is an all-encompassing feeling to the future, it will be joy; and if the future has a sound, it will be laughter. Already the angels are laughing their Alleluias, and we can join them, if we’re not too busy with our heads down, keeping score.
Humor Is Next to Godliness
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t deal explicitly with political history, religion, or game theory, but its narrative implicitly shows—in the microcosm of one man’s heart, of one couple’s relationship, of one town’s experience, of one year’s contest—the difference between finite and infinite games. Cultures have different personalities and conflicting priorities, just as siblings, spouses, and friends do. So the principle is the same writ large or small: the kind of play that heals hearts and families is the same kind of play that prevents war. And in this way, the film is a fitting (and hilarious) tribute to the vision of the real-world Eurovision.
“This movie is going to be treated horribly by critics, magazines, and the awards ceremonies,” one YouTube comment noted, “But we ALL know we liked it.”3 It would be unsurprising and somehow appropriate if this movie was snubbed at the Oscars but became a cult classic, thus mirroring Fire Saga’s post-contest headline: “Iceland Loses Contest But Wins Hearts.” This movie, and the Eurovision Song Contest itself, certainly won mine.
The Eurovision Song Contest for 2020 was sadly cancelled because of the pandemic. While awaiting next year’s contest, watch The Story of Fire Saga to take a break from the jaw-clenching seriousness of this polarized and isolating season. Have a good laugh at Lars and Sigrit, and at the American tourists Lars relentlessly insults: see yourself in them, and laugh at yourself. If the novelist Sinclair Lewis is right that “humor is next to godliness,” then loosening up a bit might be one of the best things you can do to reconcile the fraying, ill-matched threads of our common political life. Remember, we don’t need to win, we need friends, ok?
And we need more Ja Ja Ding Dong.
1. Winston Churchill, in a speech delivered at the University of Zurich, September 19, 1946, said, “We must look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years that are to come the hatreds and revenges which have sprung from the injuries of the past. If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be an act of faith in the European family and an act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past.”
2. Diedre Barry, “Musical Diplomacy: Beyond the flashing lights and kitsch delights of the Eurovision Song Contest”, eurovisionworld.com, August 9, 2020.
3. Bruce Yanovitch, YouTube.