The movie opens with a German children's song, "Hänschen klein", mixed with black-and-white footage of prewar and war scenes. It then segues to colour and a German platoon raid on a Russian forward outpost led by Sergeant Rolf Steiner, during which his men capture a Russian boy soldier.
An aristocratic Prussian officer, Captain Stransky, arrives as the new commander of Steiner's infantry battalion, which is stationed in the Kuban bridgehead on the Taman Peninsula. Stransky proudly tells the regimental commander, Colonel Brandt, and his adjutant, Captain Kiesel, that he applied for transfer from occupied France to front-line duty in Russia so that he can win the Iron Cross.
When Stransky meets Steiner for the first time, he orders Steiner to shoot the boy prisoner in strict observance of a standing order. When Steiner refuses, Stransky prepares to shoot the boy himself, but at the last moment, Corporal Schnurrbart saves the boy by volunteering to do it and taking him out of Stransky's sight. Later, Stransky informs Steiner that he has been promoted to senior sergeant, and is puzzled by Steiner's nonchalant response. Stransky also discerns that his adjutant, Lieutenant Triebig, is a closet homosexual.
While waiting for an anticipated attack, Steiner releases the young Russian, only to see the boy killed by advancing Soviet troops. As Stransky cowers in his bunker, Lieutenant Meyer, the respected leader of Steiner's platoon, is killed leading a successful counterattack. Steiner is wounded in the same battle trying to rescue a German soldier and is sent to a military hospital to recover. There, he is haunted by the faces of the dead men and the boy (in a dream sequence prior to waking from a coma), and has a romantic liaison with his nurse Eva.
After he has recovered, Steiner is offered a home leave, but decides instead to return to his men. When he arrives, Steiner is informed that Stransky has claimed credit for the counterattack and has been nominated for the Iron Cross. Stransky named as witnesses Triebig (blackmailing him with his homosexuality), and Steiner. Stransky tries to persuade Steiner to corroborate his claim by promising to look after him after the war. Brandt questions Steiner in the hope that he will expose Stransky's lies, but Steiner only states that he hates all officers, even those as "enlightened" as Brandt and Kiesel, and requests a few days to ponder his answer.
When his battalion is ordered to retreat, Stransky does not notify Steiner's platoon. Making their way back through now-enemy territory, the men capture an all-female Russian detachment. While Steiner is busy, Zoll, a despised Nazi Party member, takes one of the women into the barn to rape her. She bites his genitals and he kills her. Meanwhile, young Dietz, left to guard the rest of the women alone, is distracted and killed as well. Disgusted, Steiner locks Zoll up with the vengeful Russian women, taking their uniforms to use as a disguise.
As the men near the German lines, they radio ahead to avoid friendly fire. Stransky suggests to Triebig that Steiner and his men be "mistaken" for Russians. Triebig orders his men to shoot the incoming Germans; only Steiner, Krüger and Anselm survive. Triebig denies responsibility, but Steiner kills him and makes Krüger the platoon leader, telling him to look after Anselm. Steiner then goes hunting for Stransky.
The Soviets launch a major assault. Brandt orders Kiesel to evacuate, telling him that men like him will be needed to rebuild Germany after the war. Brandt then rallies the fleeing troops for a counterattack.
Steiner locates Stransky. But instead of killing him, he hands him a weapon, and offers to show him "where the Iron Crosses grow". Stransky accepts Steiner's "challenge", and they head off together for the battle. The film closes with Stransky trying to figure out how to reload his MP40, while being shot at by an adolescent Russian soldier who resembles the boy soldier released by Steiner. When Stransky asks Steiner for help, Steiner begins to laugh. His laughter continues through the credits, which features "Hänschen klein" again and segues to black-and-white images of civilian victims from World War II and later conflicts.
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