The film is the second German movie to portray the Battle of Stalingrad. It was predated by the 1959 Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben (Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?).
In August 1942, German soldiers enjoy leave in Cervo, Liguria, Italy after fighting in North Africa. An assembly is then held and several of the men are awarded, including Unteroffizier Manfred "Rollo" Rohleder (Jochen Nickel) and Obergefreiter Fritz Reiser (Dominique Horwitz), who are both introduced to Leutnant Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann), their new platoon commander. The unit is promptly sent to the Eastern Front to participate in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Witzland's platoon joins a company commanded by Hauptmann Hermann Musk (Karel Heřmánek). Musk leads an assault on a factory, which results in heavy casualties and the survivors being surrounded in a decrepit building. After a botched ceasefire to rescue some wounded outside, they capture Kolya, a young Russian boy. The Russians attack again the next day, and Kolya escapes in the confusion. With the radio not working, von Witzland, Reiser, Rollo, Emigholtz (Heinz Emigholz), "GeGe" Müller (Sebastian Rudolph) and Wölk (Zdenek Vencl) enter the sewers to go for help. Witzland gets separated from the others and captures a Russian soldier named Irina (Dana Vávrová), who offers to lead him to safety, but instead she 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 Reiser forces an orderly at gunpoint to work on him. Emigholtz dies anyway, and they are arrested by Hauptmann Haller (Dieter Okras), who has already clashed with von Witzland. 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 (Sylvester Groth) – to combat duty. Witzland's platoon defends a position from a Russian tank column, and emerge victorious after a bloody battle (during which Wölk is killed). Hauptman Haller later orders von Witzland and his men to execute some unarmed civilians, including Kolya, whom Witzland tries to save but to no avail.
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 Russian artillery. They rejoin the others in the shelter, where they find Musk suffering from severe trench foot. A German aircraft suddenly drops a container full of supplies, and the men rush out to devour its contents. 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. Von Witzland cuts Irina free and befriends her; she reveals she was a German collaborator, and both share 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, is last seen carrying Musk's corpse outside, only to find the Sixth Army surrendering to the Russians.
Irina offers to help Witzland and Reiser avoid capture, but while trudging through the snow they are shot at by the Soviets; Irina is killed and Witzland is mortally wounded. The 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.Dominique Horwitz as Obergefreiter Fritz Reiser
Thomas Kretschmann as Leutnant Hans von Witzland
Jochen Nickel as Unteroffizier Manfred "Rollo" Rohleder
Sebastian Rudolph as GeGe Müller (nicknamed GeGe to distinguish him from other Müllers)
Dana Vávrová as Irina
Martin Benrath as General Hentz
Sylvester Groth as Otto
Karel Heřmánek as Hauptmann Hermann Musk
Heinz Emigholz as Edgar Emigholz
Ferdinand Schuster as Double Edgar
Oliver Broumis as HGM (Müller)
Dieter Okras as Hauptmann Haller
Zdenek Vencl as Wölk
Mark Kuhn as Unteroffizier Pflüger
Thorsten Bolloff as Feldmann
Alexander Wachholz as Pfarrer Renner
J. Alfred Mehnert as Lupo
Ulrike Arnold as Viola
Christian Knoepfle as Dieter
Flip Cap as Ludwig
Jaroslav Tomsa as Opa Erwin (Grandpa Erwin)
Pavel Mang as Kolja
Otto Sevcík as Major Kock (as Oto Sevcik)
Jophi Ries as Schröder
The film was shot in several locations, including Finland, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, and took much effort to make. Director Joseph Vilsmaier had a German military consultant with him on set. A series entitled "The making of Stalingrad" was released, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the film.
In 1993 the film won Bavarian Film Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Production. It was also entered into the 18th Moscow International Film Festival.