Born in Georgia in 1917, black jazz and blues musician Harlan moves north, first to Kansas City and then to Harlem. With best friend Lizard, a Jewish trumpet player, he forms a band that, in the late 1930s, joins other black musicians in the Harlem of Paris, Montemarte. But when Paris is occupied by the Nazis, Harlan and Lizard are transported to Buchenwald.
Events in Buchenwald are dramatised in stark, economical detail. In one particularly gruelling scene, Isle Koch, wife of the commander of Buchenwald, amuses herself by brutally abusing captives.