This search for personal identity after the trauma of the world war is based on the play by Luigi Pirandello.
At Budapest in 1925 after singing in a nightclub Zara (Greta Garbo) drinks champagne with a baron, a captain, and a young man. She introduces them to her host the novelist Salter (Erich von Stroheim) as "the nobility, the army, and the nursery." The jealous Salter gets them to leave. A man calling her Maria has come to take her to her husband Count Bruno Varelli, explaining that she went mad ten years before when their estate was invaded by soldiers. Zara does not want to remember anything, but she loathes Salter. As she is leaving with the man, Salter shoots her in the arm.
In a short time Maria's sister (Hedda Hopper) will be taking over Bruno's estate. Bruno (Melvyn Douglas) is excited to meet the long-lost Maria, and the sister agrees to leave because of the woman's mental fragility; at the train station she sees little resemblance. Bruno kisses Zara when he meets her. The servants notice that she does not recognize them, and Bruno finds her a stranger. When Zara sees the portrait of Maria, she says she is not her; but Bruno has to believe that she is Maria. Zara tells him she will create her again "as you desire me."
Salter calls on the sister and says Zara is an impostor; he will show her the real countess. After a day of sailing Zara comes into Bruno's bedroom, and they kiss passionately. In love and in a similar dress Zara feels she looks like the portrait, but the eye color is questionable. She tells Bruno how she remembers Monte Carlo when he asked her to marry him. When Salter arrives, she talks to him in order to end that chapter of her life. He explains the game is to save the count's property, which he would lose in one week without the wife. Zara questions Bruno, and he admits that is true. Zara admits she does not remember anything but read Maria's diary. Salter presents the real Maria as an amnesia case from the sanitarium. The veiled woman recognizes the servant Lena and Maria's sister when she comes in. However, discussion shows that she is probably another woman who was on the estate during the invasion. Zara tells Bruno that there will always be doubts. Yet she loves him, and he loves her.
The many amnesia cases after the world war reflect the trauma of that catastrophe on fragile psyches. Zara does not want to remember any past, probably because she is not proud of her life. Bruno is desperately seeking his lost wife not only for the estate but for personal fulfillment. Zara is overcome by this love and seeks to be what he desires. As in several of his plays, Pirandello plays with the ambiguity of personal identity, which is often affirmed by belief and threatened by doubt.