1921, the German Republic: World War I has ended three years ago, but its long shadows lie heavily on a country that experiences a democratic government for the first time ever – and does not know whether to love or hate it. The burdens of post-war life in a defeated country also weigh on the family von Briest. Otto and Hermine von Briest are broke and about to loose their family heirloom, Briest Manor. Their daughter Luisa hopes for a career in the rising film business. Depression and the stark loss of money value make the German people poorer by the hour, and so the forlon masses seek destraction in cinemas, cabarets and on the new automobile race tracks.
There Max Brandow tries to prove himself. He is Otto’s and Hermine’s stepson; the Briests have saved the former urchin from an early death in the gutters. Max feels heavily indebted to the Briests, and he is bound to Luisa by a promise he will keep forever.
Sigurd von Cramm persues his personal happiness on the race track, too. His family and the Briests are bitter enemies since the days of Otto von Briest's grandparents. When Sigurd falls under the influence of the most radical of the new right wing parties that rise all over Germany, the National Socialist movement, he suddenly finds comrades in his twisted ideals – and the means to destroy the Briests once and forever.