1921, the German Republic: World War I ended three years ago, but its devastation weighs heavily on a country experiencing a democratic government for the first time and not knowing whether to love or hate it. The burdens of post-war life in a defeated country also pose a real threat to the family von Briest. Otto and Hermine von Briest are bankrupt and about to lose their family residence, Briest Manor. Their young daughter Luisa hopes for a career as a movie starlet. The Great Depression and the devaluation of the Deutsche Mark are systematically impoverishing the German people, who seek distraction in cinemas, cabarets and on the new automobile race tracks.
There Max Brandow sees his chance to take the initiative. When he was an orphan boy living in the streets, the Briest family saved him from a life of destitution and gave him a new home. Max feels heavily indebted to the Briests and he is bound to Luisa by a promise he will keep forever.
Sigurd von Cramm pursues his personal happiness on the race track as well. His family and the Briests have been bitter rivals since the days of Otto von Briest's grandparents. When Sigurd becomes indoctrinated by the National Socialist movement taking hold in Germany, he suddenly is in a postion to put his twisted ideals into action – and to destroy the Briests once and for all.