In August 1942, German soldiers enjoy leave in Cervo, Liguria, Italy, after fighting in El Alamein, where Unteroffizier Manfred "Rollo" Rohleder and Obergefreiter Fritz Reiser are introduced to Leutnant Hans von Witzland, their new platoon commander. Their unit is promptly sent to the Eastern Front to fight in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Witzland's platoon joins a company commanded by Hauptmann Hermann Musk. Musk leads an assault on a factory, which results in heavy casualties. Later, Witzland requests a ceasefire with the Soviets so both sides can collect their wounded, which they agree to. But Müller (called "HGM" to distinguish him from other Müllers) breaks the ceasefire, much to the anger of Witzland and Reiser.
Witzland's platoon is surrounded in a decrepit building. During a Soviet attack, Witzland, Reiser, Rollo, Emigholtz, and "GeGe" Müller go down to secure the sewers. Witzland gets separated from the others and captures a Soviet soldier named Irina; she offers to lead him to safety, but instead pushes him into the water and escapes. His men rescue him, and Emigholtz is found severely wounded by an explosive trap; they take him to a crowded aid station, where they grab a doctor at gunpoint to treat Emigholtz, who nonetheless dies. They are then arrested by Hauptmann Haller, who has previously clashed with Witzland regarding the treatment of Soviet POWs. They end up in a penal battalion disarming land mines.
Four weeks later, a brutal winter has set in and the Soviets have surrounded the German Sixth Army. Hauptmann Musk thus reassigns the penal battalion—which includes disgraced fellow officer Otto—to combat duty. Witzland's platoon defends a position from a Soviet tank column, and emerge victorious after a bloody battle. Hauptman Haller (likely ordered by General Hentz) later orders von Witzland and his men to execute some unarmed civilians, much to their reluctance.
Witzland, GeGe, and Reiser decide to desert and head towards Pitomnik Airfield in hopes of catching a plane back to Germany, stealing medical tags from some dead bodies along the way to feign being wounded. By the time they arrive, the last transport leaves without them as the base is shelled by Soviet artillery. They rejoin the others in the shelter, where they find Musk suffering from severe trench foot. While the men recover a German supply drop, Haller appears and holds them at gunpoint, but is quickly subdued; he accidentally shoots GeGe as he falls, killing him. Haller then pleads for his life, telling them about the supplies he is hoarding in a nearby house before being executed by Otto.
In the house's cellar they find shelves stocked full of food and liquor, and Irina tied to a bed. Witzland cuts Irina free; she reveals she is a German collaborator, and both bond in their despair and disillusionment. As the rest of the men gorge themselves, a deluded and dying Musk tries to rally them to rejoin the fighting. Otto becomes hysterical and commits suicide. Rollo, the only one to obey the order, carries Musk outside, only to find the Sixth Army surrendering to the Soviets. Rollo and Musk's fate is unknown.
Irina offers to help Witzland and Reiser get away, but while trudging through the snow they are shot at by the Soviets; Irina is killed and Witzland is wounded. The two Germans get away, but Witzland eventually becomes too weak and dies in Reiser's arms. Reiser cradles his body, reflecting on his time spent in North Africa before freezing to death.
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