Young Karl Fribert assumes a position as an entrusted clerk at Alexis Brenge’s venerable, old bank. Brenge, who holds him in great esteem, floods him with confidential assignments. On the whole, fortune would seem to be smiling on Fribert. He is secretly engaged to lovely young Miss Gudrun, who also works in Brenge’s office. Then something happens that wrecks the young man’s life and in his misfortune he drags three other people down with him. One evening, Gudrun and Karl Fribert go to the theatre to see an operetta starring the theatre’s new prima donna, Lydia Elo. Fribert is so taken by the leading lady’s beauty that he completely forgets himself. Gudrun wonders at his behaviour, but he asks her to go home alone. Fribert takes position at the stage entrance, determined to make Lydia’s acquaintance. After a while, a car pulls up and out steps Kurt Brenge, the bank president’s son, and he leaves with Lydia.
Later that night, Fribert receives a dinner invitation from Kurt Brenge, which he takes as a nod from fate that he and Lydia should be together. At the dinner party the next evening, Fribert attains the first of his heart’s desires when he is introduced to Lydia. He confesses his great love for her and describes how appalled he is to see the near-cynical lack of chivalry with which Kurt treats her. Before they part, they agree to meet for tea the following day. Fribert asks her to be his life’s companion, but Lydia shakes her head. She does not love Kurt, but if she is going to marry someone he has to be rich, because she could not stand a life in poverty. Fribert walks away with a heavy heart.
Fribert tries to forget Lydia, but all day along he is consumed with longing for her. He has started a dirty business under bank manager Steinwalt, so he can buy an expensive piece of jewellery for Lydia, not knowing that his sacrifice comes too late. Kurt is growing increasingly indifferent to Lydia, and Fribert finds her in such a miserable state that he swears to avenge her honour and force Kurt Brenge to marry her. Inflamed with admiration for Fribert’s chivalry, Lydia presents him with a collection of letters proving Kurt’s offence. Fribert calls on Kurt with this evidence, but Kurt manages to pry the letters from his hands and throw them into the roaring fireplace. Fribert kills Kurt and goes straight to Lydia, who is waiting at the theatre, where a new play is opening. When he tells her that love has made a murderer of him, Lydia feels terror and delight at once at this mighty love that knows no obstacle.
After their talk, Lydia goes on stage. She is making small circles around a fire at centre stage. As he contemplates his beloved, it seems to Fribert that her face is wearing an oddly determined look. At that moment, she dances up to the box where Fribert is sitting and whispers, "I love you!" She then ends her dance, conceived as a worship of fire, by throwing herself into the flames. Ignoring the ensuing panic, Fribert leaps on stage and takes Lydia into his arms. He carries her up the stairs to the roof where he gently puts her down and presses a final kiss upon her lips. A few moments later, the crowd on the street emits a collective shriek. Fribert has plunged from the roof of the theatre. Among those who rush to Fribert’s broken body is young Gudrun, who bends, weeping, over the man who abandoned her to find love and happiness but found only death.