Two children, who look a lot like Michel and Paulette, the heros of the film, are seated on the bank of a lake, in the middle of a beautiful and rich park. The children themselves, very smartly dressed, seem to be from a rich family. The little boy has a big book from which he reads a story to the little girl. This story is the very beginning of the story told in the film. (This scene is to be found only in some earlier versions of the film)
June 1940. The film shows us some very realistic scenes of the French «exode». During the spring of 1940, several millions of French people, from the North of France, and mostly from the Paris area, being afraid of the German army, were running away southward. The film shows us a road and a bridge, on which people are walking very fast, carrying their belongings in suitcases and bags. Some of them have carts, drawn by people or by horses, some even have cars or small trucks.
Suddenly, German planes start dropping bombs on the people, who hide on the roadsides. When the planes are gone, people go back on the road. Among them, a young couple (Mr and Mrs Fossey), with their five or six-year-old daughter, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), go back to their car, which doesn't want to start. Other people, bothered by this car in the middle of the road, pushes it outside the road. Paulette's parents take a few suitcases, Paulette takes her black and white puppy, and they all start running away on foot.
Some more German planes are coming in the sky. Paulette and her parents lie down on the side of the road. A horse, frightened by the planes and the bombs, runs away, breaking one the wheel of its two-wheel cart. Paulette's puppy is also frightened by the noise and runs away on the bridge, with Paulette running behind it and her parents behind her.
The four of them lie down in a nook of the bridge. But a plane machine-gun them and kills the parents and the dog. Paulette is spared. She looks at her parents and doesn't seem to understand exactly what happened. She gets up and goes away with the dead dog in her arms. She moves away to avoid the mad horse still pulling its one-wheel cart.
The «exode» people are back on the road. Paulette is taken by a couple in their fifties, the female (Janine Zorelli) seated on a huge pile of bags and cases in a cart, and the male (Georges Sauval) pulling the cart. The female throws the dead dog in the river. But when the couple starts arguing with other people around them, Paulette gets down from the cart, and then down on the edge of the edge, following her dog floating on the water. She eventually catches it back, and we see the mad horse running behind her across the countryside.
A bit further, a farmer, Mr Dollé (Lucien Hubert) is working in a field with his wife (Suzanne Courtal), his elder son Georges (Jacques Marin), who seems to be in his early thirties, and his second son Raymond (Pierre Mérovée). His younger son, Michel (Georges Poujouly), aged ten, is taking care of the cows. Michel notices the mad horse entering the field and tells his father.
Georges comes closer to the horse, but, at this very moment, another plane comes flying above them. The horse jumps and kicks Georges in the stomach, and then runs away. Georges falls on the ground moaning and his parents and his brother Raymond carry him back to the farm, while Michel runs after a cow, who has gone away.
The cow walks down to a stream, where it meets Paulette, who starts crying. Michel questions Paulette, who tells him about her dead parents, and her dead dog, which she is still holding. Michel tells her to leave the dog in a bush and help him to bring the cow back to the farm.
Between the Dollé's farm and the neighbor one, the Gouard's farm, there is only a stream and a small wooden bridge. Both families have been fighting for year, they don't even know why anymore. When the children walk in the farmyard, Mr Dollé doesn't even notice them, being too busy chasing the Gouard's dog. He starts arguing with Mr Gouard (André Wasley), and then, walking back to his farm, eventually notices Paulette. Michel tells him who she is. His father doesn't seem too keen on the idea of taking care of the little girl, so Michel says he is going to take her to the Gouard's farm. Which gets Mr Dollé very angry, and he pushes both kids in front of him and inside the farm.
In the large main room of the farm, Raymond and his older sister Berthe (Laurence Badie) are undressing Georges to put him in bed. Georges notices Paulette and the whole family looks at her, including the youngest of the girls, Renée (Violette Monnier), aged thirteen-fourteen. The girls look at Paulette's dress, the mother gives her a glass of milk, with a fly floating on it, and all of them ask her a lot of questions. Paulette, annoyed by them, pushes them away, and tells discreetly to Michel that she is tired.
Later in the evening, Paulette is asleep on Mr Dollé's lap. He is reading the newspaper while Michel is doing his homework. On the paper, the picture of a soldier attracts Berthe's attention, because he looks like Francis, Gouard's elder son, who is a soldier in the French army. It is obvious that there is «something» between those two young people, something they must hide from their families.
Raymond then talks about the «exode» people dead on the road. Because of a shortage of coffins, they had to be buried in a hole in the ground, «like dogs». His father shuts him up, because he is afraid that Paulette is not quite asleep and may hear what he says. The mother, along with Berthe, Renée and Michel, brings Paulette in the attic, where a bed has been set for her, while the father sits on Georges' bed to read the paper to him.
When Paulette is in bed, everyone goes back down in the main room, Michel going out last. Paulette whispers to him that she doesn't want to stay alone. Michel advises her to call him with a very loud voice.
Paulette does what Michel asks her, which annoys Georges, who doesn't feel very good. His father tells Michel to go up in the attic to quiet Paulette down.
Paulette and Michel talk in the dark, but soon German bombings light the room. Paulette is scared and Michel closes the shutter on the window. Paulette actually heard what Raymond said and asks Michel if her parents are going to be buried «like dogs». Michel doesn't know what to answer.
Later in the night, the whole Dollé family is asleep except Georges, because of the pain in his stomach. Paulette has a nightmare and starts yelling. Georges throws a box on Michel to wake him up. Michel takes a petrol lamp to check on Paulette, who is already half-asleep when Michel reaches the attic. Michel walks back down and reads the paper to Georges to keep him company.
Next morning, the whole family is having breakfast, except Paulette, who is still getting dressed in the attic. She walks down and inquires about the crucifix above Georges' bed. We understand that Paulette's family were atheists, which doesn't seem to please the Dollé, who are good catholics. Mrs Dollé also talks about mentioning Paulette to the gendarmes (the French country police).
Michel walks out of the farm and Raymond comes in with the hats the «exode» people have left on the road. He clowns, which makes Georges laugh, even with the pain in his stomach.
Discreetly without Michel seeing her, Paulette finds the place where she left her dog, and, with a hoe, she starts digging a hole to bury it. She is interrupted by the local vicar (Louis Saintève), who, learning who she is, wants to teach her the sign of the cross. But Paulette, who is holding her dog hidden behind her back, doesn't want to do it.
The vicar walks away, and Paulette, hearing Michel call her, takes her hoe and her dog and walks away to an old disused water mill, inside which she starts digging again. Michel joins her and helps her digging. Michel suggests that they create a dead animals cemetery. He climbs up under the roof of the mill to the nest of a old owl, and takes a dead mole from the nest. He digs another tomb for the mole, and tells Paulette they're going to put crosses on each tomb. He has to show atheist Paulette what a cross exactly is. Paulette then puts her broken necklace on her dog's cross.
Later in the evening, Michel is in the attic making crosses with pieces of wood, nails and a hammer, while teaching Paulette her prayers, as the vicar asks him to do.
Down in the main room, Georges is feeling worse and worse, and Michel hammering above his head doesn't help him to feel better. His father walks up in the attic to see what Michel is doing. When he sees that Michel is making crosses in the house of a sick man, he gets very angry, brings Paulette down and tells Michel he will stay in the attic without eating.
In the main room, the whole family is gathered round the table to eat the evening soup. Raymond checks on his brother, who is spitting blood. Georges is dying and the family doesn't know what to do about it. The mother says that a prayer would help, but the only one who knows his prayers well is Michel, who is ordered back into the main room.
Michel, who didn't like being punished, starts mumbling false prayers. When the mother tries to give Georges castor oil, and sees that he doesn't move his lips anymore, the whole family understands he is dead. Michel stops mumbling, kneels down by his brother's bed and says real prayers. Paulette walks near him and, whispering, asks him if he is going to dig a hole for his brother, which horrifies Michel.
Next day, Mr Dollé is fixing the floor of his hearse, when Michel notices that the four little wooden crosses are not well fixed on the roof of the hearse. He looks for Paulette to tell her about it, and finds her feeding the chicks.
Early next morning, Francis Gouard (Philippe de Chérisey, known as Amédée) is coming back to his father's farm, in full military uniform, and plays his bugle before he gets in. The Dollé family is having breakfast, and, intrigued by the sound of the bugle, they send Michel to spy on the Gouard farm. Michel takes a basket and a sickle and pretends he is cutting grass for the rabbits.
Michel walks very close to the Gouard farm window, still pretending he is cutting grass. And he sees Francis telling his father and his two sisters, Marcelle (Fernande Roy) and Jeanne (Denise Péronne), how he left the defeated French army. Michel comes closer to the window, and closer to a cage full of young chicks, which he starts stealing, putting them inside his shirt. Mr Gouard sees him and chases him away.
Back into his own farm, Michel just tells his parents that Francis is back home, and runs away to meet Paulette. Mr Dollé, who is not such a fool as Berthe believes him to be, tells her not to go and see Francis.
Michel rushes to the attic, where he shows Paulette the chicks, swearing he didn't kill them.
Later in the day, Paulette is picking flowers in a field, when she sees Berthe and Francis flirting in the grass. She moves away to meet Michel, who shows her the crosses he just took off from the hearse, and which Paulette finds ugly.
It is Georges' funeral. The hearse stops in front of the church, and the coffin is being carried inside. Everyone follows the coffin, except Mr Dollé, who wants to check the wooden floor of his hearse. He is met by a latecomer cousin, who walks inside the church.
Inside the church, Michel and Paulette are more interested by the crosses on the walls than by the funeral ceremony.
Outside, Mr Dollé is still fixing his hearse, when the Gouard daughters, crossing the village with their cows, see him and make fun of him. They walk away and Mr Dollé notices the missing crosses on the roof of the hearse. He goes inside the church and asks Michel to come outside with him. Michel feels ill at ease, and tells his father that the crosses could have been stolen by the Gouard, a lie his father seems to believes.
Back inside the church, Paulette doesn't seem interested by what Michel tells her about his father, but more interested by the big copper cross above the altar.
Meanwhile, Francis and his father are sawing wood inside a barn. Mr Gouard says that he doesn't know how Mr Dollé is going to manage his farm without Georges, and Francis answers him there is still Berthe, whom his father calls a hooker. The argument heats up, and Francis says he will marry Bethe, whether his father likes it or not.
The funeral ceremony is now over and the hearse enters the churchyard, where Michel and Paulette are fascinated by the crosses. While he is shoveling earth on the buried coffin, Mr Dollé tells the vicar about Gouard stealing the crosses of the hearse, but the vicar doesn't seem to believe it.
One of two days later, inside the church, Michel is confessing the stealing of the crosses to the vicar. The vicar tells him to give the crosses back and asks him to say a few prayers as a penance. Then Berthe enters the confessional, while Michel kneels down on a prie-dieu to say his prayers. He keeps looking at the big cross above the altar. He takes off his shoes, grabs a chair and walks around the altar to steal the cross.
Meanwhile, Berthe is telling the vicar she already had sex with Francis, and, since they do want to marry, she asks the priest to fix things with both their families. The vicar can't answer because of the booming noise made by Michel falling down while trying to steal the cross. He rushes out of the confessional, kicks Michel out of the church and pushes Berthe back into the confessional.
In the evening, Mr Dollé tells his wife the conversation he had with his neighbor Gouard, who swore he didn't steal the crosses on his wife's tomb. We learn two things, one that Mr Gouard is a widower, two that he neglects his wife's tomb.
In a corner of the main room, Michel is writing cards to put on the animals' tombs (dog, mole, worm, etc.). With his dip pen, he kills a cockroach, which makes Paulette cry.
Mr Dollé sends everyone in bed. Paulette kisses everybody around, including Michel, who reminds her that the vicar hit him when he tried to steal the cross. When Paulette is in bed in the attic, she asks Michel to go and steal the crosses in the churchyard.
Later in the night, Berthe and Francis are flirting in the hay-barn, but they are interrupted by Paulette and Michel coming to get a wheelbarrow to carry the crosses. Francis hides in the hay, but Michel sees his feet sticking out.
A bit later, Michel is pushing the wheelbarrow full of crosses on a path, while the German bombings are lighting the sky. Paulette sings to try to forget her fear. A cross falls on the ground, but the children don't even stop to pick it up. It is a small cross that Mrs Dollé had put on her son's tomb.
Next morning, a Sunday, the Dollé family is getting ready to go to the churchyard and put flowers on Georges' tomb. When Mr Gouard sees them from his window, he tells his children to get ready to go to the churchyard. Michel, who knows very well what his parents are going to find in the churchyard, tries not to go, but his father kicks him in front of him.
On the path leading to the churchyard, Mrs Dollé picks up the cross fallen from the wheelbarrow. Michel tries to run back to the farm, but the Gouard family, coming behind him, leaves him no escape. Mr Gouard explains to his children that he is going to show Dollé that he knows how to take care of a tomb.
The Dollé family reaches the churchyard and finds there are no more crosses on Georges' tomb. The father, who thinks he knows who did it, rushes toward Mrs Gouard's tomb, from which he snatches and breaks the cross. Mr Gouard walks to him and both men first insult each other, then they start fighting and finally they fall into a freshly dug tomb, where they keep on fighting. Berthe runs to the church to get the vicar, who explains to both families who is stealing the crosses. Michel runs away from the churchyard, with both families running after him.
Inside the old mill, Michel has completed his animals' cemetery, with the crosses and the cards naming each animal. Satisfied by his work, he quietly eats an apple.
Later in the evening, the Dollé family is getting ready to go to bed. Renée is reading a love story, but the parents are wondering where Michel has gone, and their try to list the fourteen crosses the vicar said Michel has stolen. They don't know that Michel is watching them hidden behind a window. When his father walks outside in the farmyard, Michel hides inside the barn.
From the barn, Michel climbs into the attic, where he doesn't find Paulette, who is being questioned by Berthe about the crosses. Michel, hidden in the staircase leading to the attic, follows the conversation, and when he feels that Paulette is ready to talk, he whispers to Berthe that, if she tells their father about him, he will tell their father about Berthe flirting with Francis in the barn.
Paulette climbs into the attic, where Michel is waiting for her. He tells her that he can't take her and shows her the animals' cemetery, because his father has locked all the doors.
Next morning, Paulette wakes up Michel, who is sleeping in the barn. Meanwhile, two gendarmes (André Enard and Bernard Musson), are walking toward the two farms. Francis thinks they're coming to get him, and Raymond thinks they're coming because the Gouard told them about Michel stealing the crosses. Berthe tells her father about Michel being in the barn, and Mr Dollé rushes inside the barn, where he gives his son a good thrashing, while Paulette starts crying.
Mrs Dollé walks in the barn to explain her husband that the gendarmes only came to take Paulette away. Michel tells his parents that, if Paulette stays with him, he will tell them where the crosses are hidden. But, when the gendarmes walk in the barn, Mr Dollé doesn't keep the promise he made to his son and signs the document the gendarme gives him. Michel runs away and Paulette tells the gendarmes her name is Paulette Dollé (actually, we shall never know her real name).
Inside the old mill, Michel throws all the crosses in the river, where they are floating away. Then he entrusts Paulette's broken necklace to the old owl.
In the Red Cross refugees center, a nun (Madeleine Barbulé) ties a badge bearing the name of «Paulette Dollé» around Paulette's neck, and asks her to keep it. The nun walks away, and Paulette remains seated on her bench until she hears someone call «Michel». Of course, it is not Michel Dollé, but Paulette runs among the refugees calling «Michel».
A last scene has been added in earlier versions of the film, actually the same versions which have the first scene with the two well-dressed children who look like Michel and Paulette. In this added scene, the little boy finishes his story, and the little girl starts crying. To comfort her, the little boy tells her an imaginary ending of the story, in which Michel and Paulette are reunited and hides themselves in a place where nobody can find them. The little girl asks the little boy to hide them on their island in the middle of the lake.