Ozi was orphaned in the wake of World War II and the bombing of Hamburg. He leads a small group of children as they scavenge the city’s rubble and beg for cigarettes and anything else they can trade for food. They are hunting a black beast, attempting to kill it before it can kill them. The beast escapes, however, and they return to scavenging.
After WWII, Germany was divided into sectors with different Allied countries overseeing the reconstruction of each. Captain Lewis Morgan is the English senior officer for the reconstruction of Hamburg. Lewis’ wife and son are due to join him in Germany within the next month, so he must find suitable accommodations for them.
One of his captains locates a large house on the river owned by a wealthy German family. The captain suggests displacing the current occupants, a widower and his teenage daughter, so the Morgans can move in. German families were often displaced to make room for the occupying soldiers, either moving in with relatives or being placed in ramshackle, under-supplied camps.
Lewis has qualms about removing the family, but drives to the other side of Hamburg to see the house. On the way, a group of orphaned children jump in front of the car, forcing it to stop. Lewis’ driver gets out of the car and begins to beat one of them, but Lewis stops him and gives the children food and cigarettes, which they can trade for other essentials.
When Lewis and his driver arrive at the house, Herr Lubert greets them. Lubert is pleasant and hospitable, hoping that if he can win Lewis’ sympathy, Lewis will be more careful with Lubert’s belongings while occupying the house. Lubert’s daughter is filled with anger and refuses to greet Lewis. Nevertheless, Lewis is won over and proposes that the two families share the house.
Meanwhile, Lewis’ wife, Rachael, and son, Edmund, are on a ship headed for Germany. The British government provided them with pamphlets, which instructed them on how to interact with the German people. Edmund reads aloud that they are to avoid socializing with Germans. The pamphlet warns that though the Germans may look similar to the British, they are really quite different.
Rachael is comforted by this message as she blames the Germans for the death of her 14-year-old son. Rachael, Edmund, and her other son, Michael, were living in the English countryside to avoid the bombings in more populated parts of England, but a German plane on its way home dropped an unused bomb, which destroyed the house and killed Michael.
While on the ship, Rachael befriends several other army wives heading to Germany, including Mrs. Burnham, whose husband works with Lewis. Lewis and Rachael are both filled with apprehension about their upcoming reunion. They have not seen each other for several years, with the exception of a few days for Michael’s funeral. Rachael is filled with affection when she finally sees him, but is taken aback by his distant greeting. Lewis takes his wife and son out for dinner where he explains that they will be sharing a home with the Luberts. Rachael is angry and upset, viewing the Luberts as part of the enemy who killed her son.
Lewis drives his family to the new house and introduces them to Herr Lubert. Lubert’s daughter, Freda, still refuses to interact with the Morgans. After the introductions and Rachael’s tour of the house, she confronts Lewis about his choice to allow the Luberts to stay, accusing him of not feeling the pain of Michael’s death the way she does. He states that his responsibilities have not allowed him time to mourn.
The next morning Freda leaves for school, only to find the school closed. The military police tell her that she can either head home or help with the rubble clearance in exchange for food vouchers. She joins a line of workers clearing bricks and begins talking to a young man named Albert.
She explains that she and her father live with a British governor, and Albert invites her back to his house. Albert explains that he belongs to a resistance movement still fighting for the Nazi party and asks for her help. Freda blames the English for the death of her mother and believes she is falling in love with Albert, so she agrees to bring him any information she can obtain on the governor.
Edmund spends his morning playing in the house before venturing outside. He finds a meadow just beyond the edge of the Luberts’ property where he meets Ozi and the other orphans. They bond by teaching each other swear words in their respective languages. Before they say goodbye, Ozi asks Edmund to bring them cigarettes that they can trade for food.
Meanwhile Rachael is attempting to settle into the house, rearranging it to her taste. Mrs. Burnham comes to visit and notes an unfaded patch of wallpaper in the shape of a picture frame. She speculates that it was probably a portrait of Hitler. A few days later Rachael sees Lubert covering the patch with a portrait of a German lady. She confronts him about it and accuses him of being a Nazi. He explains that he is a German nationalist but not a Nazi and challenges Rachael’s prejudice against the Germans. After this conversation, Lubert impulsively kisses her. He states that he and Freda will prepare to move out, but she allows them to stay.
A few days later, Rachael hosts a dinner party for a few officers and their wives, but Lewis is called away due to some protesters at a factory being shot. During the party, Maj. Burnham gets extremely drunk and begins destroying some of Lubert’s belongings. Lubert comes into the room with a gash on his forehead and is filled with anger at Burnham’s behavior. Rachael intervenes, sending her party guests home before a fight can break out. Rachael cleans and bandages Lubert’s injury while he explains that he was at the protest where the shooting broke out. Rachael and Lubert kiss again.
After dealing with the shooting at the protest, Lewis is summoned to the office of the general who supervises him. The general wants to send him to a remote location for a few weeks to oversee the destruction of Germany’s remaining weapons of war. Meanwhile, Freda is able to steal a folder of classified information from among Lewis’ belongings and deliver it to Albert. She also meets Ozi, who is Albert’s little brother.
Lewis is gone over Christmas, so Rachael and Edmund celebrate with the Luberts. After an evening of movies and games, everyone goes to bed except for Rachael and Lubert. He confides in her that the empty space on the wall held a picture of his wife Claudia. Rachael sympathizes with his loss and is comforted to finally have someone she can mourn with. They kiss once again before going up to Lubert’s room and spending the night together.
In another part of Hamburg, Ozi trades the cigarettes from Edmund and some valuable items that Freda brought to Albert for a gun. Albert told him the gun was for hunting, but Ozi worries that Albert will use it to hurt Edmund’s family. He tries to convince Albert to forgive the English and move on with his life, but Albert refuses to listen.
Lubert and Rachael continue their affair while Lewis is away. They plan to take a trip to Lubert’s hometown, Lubeck, but before they leave, Lewis’ second-in-command brings a box of files to the house. One of the files reveals that Lubert’s wife is alive and in a nearby hospital. She has amnesia from the bombings and so has not been able to return home. Another file reveals that several officers and their families have been looting the German homes that they are staying in. The Burnhams appear among the list.
Rachael decides to travel to Lubeck as planned, but tells Lubert the news as soon as they arrive. She ends their affair, saying that they were united by their losses. She also reveals that her feelings for her husband are returning, and she hopes that their relationship can be restored. The two return together — Lubert to find his wife and Rachael to wait for her husband’s return later that day.
Lewis’ second-in-command drives him home, but as they near the house, Lewis hears a gunshot, and the car careens into a ditch. Lewis discovers that his friend was shot in the head and leaps from the car to chase the man who is responsible: Albert. Albert runs onto a frozen river, but the ice begins to crack. He falls through the ice and begs Lewis for help. Lewis lets him drown.
Lewis returns to the house heartbroken at the loss of his friend. He breaks down in tears, finally able to mourn. Rachael finds him in the living room and recognizes that his tears are also for his son. She apologizes for her previous coldness and their relationship is restored.
When Lewis goes into work the next day, he discovers that Freda has been arrested for conspiring with Albert. Lewis believes that Freda’s choices were spurred by her anger at losing her mother and wants to give her a second chance now that he knows her mother is alive and well. Burnham is the officer in charge of prosecuting her, however, and wants to see her punished. Lewis is forced to use the information about Burnham plundering German houses to convince him to let her go. Freda is reunited with her parents and has Albert’s child a few months later.