A military barracks on the Eastern Front in World War I is the setting. Ludwig is writing a letter to his friend Vincent. He is making no progress in his true “work”: philosophy. Everything is unclear, in his thoughts about the world and the military situation on the Eastern Front.
Enters Vincent, who is in England and could not possibly be here on the Eastern Front. Ludwig talks with Vincent about love, about logic and about words.
To escape the din of the other soldiers betting on a game of cards, Vincent disappears. The winner of the card game, Michael, goes off to spend his winnings on a prostitute. Michael’s physiognomy resembles that of Vincent.
Seeing Ludwig absorbed in reading the Gospel in the New Testament, Kamil shows him his leg wounded in the trench fighting and berates him saying, “God is long since dead.”
The gentle-tempered Bernard is praying for the souls of his dead fellow soldiers. Then he asks, “If God is dead, then to whom am I praying?.
Sergeant Steiner comes into the barracks and starts a strategy briefing. He says that the squad is ordered to deploy to the front tonight. He gives them their orders: “If the enemy comes, shoot them.” This leaves the soldiers in a discouraged state. Steiner uses the bread, sausage and cigarette buts scattered around the table to make a map of the mountains and river of the battlefield and the positions of the troops, and then he explains their mission. The opposing force is expected to outnumber them several times and to be armed with every kind of weapon.
Steiner says, “Don’t worry. When we win, we win. When we die, we die.” When Bernard asks him about the presence of God, Steiner takes a hip flask as a symbol of God and places it on their own side of the battlefield, then he takes Kamil with him to service the machine gun.
Left behind, Ludwig adds to the tabletop map the positions of the watchtower, machine guns and the layout of the trenches, and he speculates about the enemy’s strategy for the coming offensive. This leads him to a question. Why can we use things like this to represent realities? Then he comes to a realization. We use words to describe realities. With words we can describe our world, in all aspects, from the positions of objects we see about us to the outer boundaries of the universe. This realization excites him greatly.
Words can be used not only to represent realities but also to talk about all of the possible worlds that may exist. However, the God that Steiner has used the hip flask to represent is not in the position where he has placed it. But, it can be said that God exists.
Vincent appears in front of Ludwig again. Each describes in words a different landscape they perceive spread out in front of them. Then they go on to describe the days of the past that they spent together at university, in a fantasy world and on a journey to the face of the moon.
Ludwig says, “The limits of thought are the same as the limits of words,” and “The borderline of the limits of thought can only be drawn from the inside.” Vincent says to Ludwig, “God is on the outside of the universe. The outside cannot be seen from the inside..
Steiner calls for the squad to gather. The time to start the offensive is approaching. He begins a drawing of straws to decide who will man the dangerous watchtower, but as if seeking a place to die, Kamil suddenly comes forward and volunteers for the assignment. Steiner ignores him and it is decided that Michael will man the watchtower.
Steiner repeats again, “When we win, we win.” Ludwig refutes this statement as illogical. Bernard places the hip flask on the table, saying, “God is here.” Ludwig refutes this statement with the idea that God is not of material substance, and he says, “There must be something that resembles God, but it is not in this room.” Then he turns off the room’s light. Anxiety rules.
In the dark, the squad remembers the trench war ahead. The sound of bombardment, the shouts, the searchlights sweeping the vast darkness in search of enemy troops.
Bernard asks if they are really alive. He doesn’t know. Ludwig turns on the light again, but darkness still reigns in the men’s world.
“I want to turn on the light.” Ludwig makes a request, volunteering to man the searchlight in the watchtower. The soldiers go out to the battle.
It is now two weeks after that battle. Ludwig is writing a letter to Vincent. In these two weeks he has made progress in his “work” in philosophy. In the letter he writes, “People can speak clearly about things that can be spoken of, but are forced to remain silent in the face of things that can’t be spoken of..
Steiner begins a strategy briefing. He reads the orders, “The Austro-Hungarian army has the advantage in the war now.” “Today the infantry will withdraw.” Then he hands a letter to Ludwig.
The letter, written by Vincent’s mother, says that Vincent has died in an accident, and expresses her gratitude to Ludwig for his friendship.
Ludwig embraces Michael, who has been poking fun at him, and he prays for the soul of Vincent. Ludwig begins preparing for the squad’s retreat.