Based on Maurice Rostand’s play and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, a French soldier kills a German and after the war goes to visit his family and fiancée in Germany.
In Paris on November 11, 1919 people celebrate the first anniversary of the armistice ending the Great War. In a cathedral soldiers listen to a sermon about peace. One man remains behind praying alone on his knees. Paul Renaud (Phillips Holmes) goes up to the priest and asks him to help him because he cannot get away from the man he killed. The priest goes into the confessional, and Paul tells him he did not want to be a murderer but a musician. Now he remembers the sound of a dying man. The priest asks why he killed the man, and Paul says for no reason at all. Paul says he looked at him as he is dying.
The German soldier sees a book on Beethoven with a letter in it. He reaches out and writes, “Walter.” Paul in the confessional says as a Frenchman he learned German. He says he killed and collapses on the floor. The priest comes out and helps him stand up. He tells Paul to go away with a clear conscience. He only did his duty. Paul asks if that is the only answer he can get in the house of God. The priest blesses him in Latin, and Paul says he came to find peace; but he did not give it to him. Paul looks at a painting of Jesus in the arms of his mother. The priest speaks to him as his son. Paul says the man has a son. He can go to his country and see his people. He says nine million people were slaughtered, and they are already talking about another war. Paul says he killed Walter Holderlin, and he cannot escape. The priest advises him to go to his country to his people.
In Germany at his office Dr. H. Holderlin (Lionel Barrymore) tells Fritz to be a good boy. Fritz says he did not want to fight the other boy, but he called him a Frenchman. Dr. Holderlin tells him to hold it in and wait for a real Frenchman. His father understands, and the boy goes out. Outside the boys sing.
Walter Schultz (Lucien Littlefield) rings a bell, and Fraulein Elsa (Nancy Carroll) lets him in. He says he wants to consult the doctor for his heart trouble. Schultz tells Dr. Holderlin he is in good physical condition, but he came to talk about Elsa. He says she was engaged to Dr. Holderlin’s son who died in battle as a hero. He says her bereavement must be painful. He says he wants to marry Elsa. Dr. Holderlin asks if she is in love with him. Schultz says his name is also Walter. Dr. Holderlin walks out of the room, and Elsa comes in. She tells Schultz that life must go on and that Walter said that too. She remembers his promise that his death would not have a bad effect on her. Schultz says he understands, but she says he does not or he would not be there. He wants to talk with her mother, but Elsa tells him to leave them alone. Schultz nods and goes out.
Dr. Holderlin says he wants to be with him a few more minutes, and he goes into a room alone. At the sound of 4 o’clock he corrects his clock. He opens a violin case.
In a cemetery the wind uncovers leaves from the tombstone of Walter Holderlin. Frau Holderlin (Louise Carter) places flowers on his grave. As she walks away, she hears a woman crying and comforts her. The woman says he would have been twenty today. He was tall, and Frau Holderlin says he loved her cakes. She asks the woman not to cry anymore. She says their boys may be able to see them. They would not want them to be crying all the time. There are many years ahead of them.
At dinner Frau Holderlin asks her husband if he had a hard day. He says it was a great day, and the soup is marvelous. He says good times are coming back again. Elsa says they can hardly believe there was ever a war.
Paul rings the bell, and the maid Anna (Zasu Pitts) lets him in to see the doctor.
Elsa with flowers finds Paul placing flowers on Walter’s grave. He sees her and walks away. A gravedigger tells Elsa that he is a Frenchman who came before. He says the man gave him ten francs.
Paul comes in to the office of Dr. Holderlin, who has him sit down. Dr. Holderlin asks his name and writes it down. His address is a hotel. He says he is from Paris and admits he is a Frenchman. Dr. Holderlin shouts at him to get out. Paul says he must listen to him and understand. Dr. Holderlin says there can be no understanding between them because of millions of dead. He shows him the photo of his son, and he accuses every Frenchman of murdering his son. Dr. Holderlin walks around his desk and asks what he can do for him. Elsa comes in, sees Paul, and runs out calling to her mother. Paul says he just came from his son’s grave. Elsa returns with her mother, who welcomes him to their home. They shake hands. She thanks him for the flowers. Dr. Holderlin asks if he knew Walter. Paul says yes, and he cannot forget him. Dr. Holderlin takes his hand. Frau Holderlin says, “God bless you.” Paul asks them to forgive him. He says he came to talk about him, but it is difficult. They all sit down. They want him to tell them about Walter. Paul says the last time he saw him he was very happy. He says they went out together in Paris and had a great time.
Later Elsa and Paul come out of the front door. She says he made them feel alive again. They shake hands, and he walks off. Dr. Holderlin calls to see him again as he goes.
The next day Elsa looks at a dress in a window. The shopkeeper recommends a French model for her. He offers her a special price, but she says some other time and walks off.
Anna goes into a meat market and orders five lamb chops and pigs’ knuckles for five. She says she will not speak of the Frenchman who is in love with Elsa. Two women hear this and go out. Frau Schmidt spreads the word to others who see Paul walking with Elsa. He says the days are going by quickly. He loves their little town, and she hopes he can stay. Schultz on his bicycle sees them walking together. In a tavern he tells men he expects to see Frenchmen in France but not in a German city. The men do not like their cities being occupied by foreign soldiers. They ask who the Frenchman is. Schultz tells them he is a spy. A waiter says he has a locked violin case in his room. Schultz asks what is in the case and says they are too trusting thinking it contains a violin. Dr. Holderlin comes in and says, “Good morning” to his friends. He asks the waiter for nine beers, but Schultz says not for him. Another man says to make it seven. So Dr. Holderlin orders one beer. He hopes he is not intruding. Schultz asks him to bring his friends along. Dr. Holderlin says maybe he will bring his friend. He says he came to put flowers on his son’s grave, and he is his guest. He says his wife, Elsa, and he like him. A man asks who killed his son. They have dead sons too. Dr. Holderlin asks who sent that man out to kill Germans and who sent out their boys to kill. He says the fathers on both sides did. He says they are too old to fight but not too old to hate. They are responsible. When others died, they celebrated victory with beer. Others celebrated victories with wine. He says his heart is with the young, and he leaves. A man on crutches shakes his hand before he goes. Dr. Holderlin says he cheered as his son was going to his death. Outside the door he stops and remembers the soldiers marching.
Schultz comes out and introduces himself to Paul, who admits he is from Paris. Schultz asks if he is going back soon. Schultz says he is not having a bad time there. Another man calls to Schultz, and Paul goes upstairs to his room. There he remembers the war. He calls for his bill and says he is checking out.
At home Dr. Holderlin asks his wife if Paul has come. She tells him to lie back down because he had an exciting day. He says Paul may leave them, but she says, “Elsa.” They hear the doorbell.
Anna lets Paul in, and Dr. Holderlin welcomes him and takes off his coat. He calls to Elsa, and she sees Paul. Her father notices her new dress and asks Paul if it is pretty. He says it is beautiful. Dr. Holderlin says he is very happy and leaves the room. Paul tells Elsa he is going away. He came to say goodbye. She asks why he is going. Her mother calls to her, and she opens the door. Her mother pins an ornament on her dress, and Elsa goes back to Paul. She asks him what it is. He says he has to go to Paris. She asks if he will come back, and he says no. She asks him to look at her and tell him. He says he does not belong there. He has no right to be there. She says he has a right because she loves him. He says she does not know what she is saying. He puts his head in her lap and asks God to help him. She says her conscience is clear. She is ready to face anyone with him. She will tell them the war is over. He agrees and goes out and up the stairs.
She follows him and takes him into Walter’s room. She opens a drawer and takes a letter from a bundle and starts reading it. She says it is his last letter, written the day he died. She says he meant it for both of them. He describes his weapons and wonders who is going to kill and asks why. He says he lived in Paris for two years and loved the French. He asks how much longer he will live. He asks who will benefit from his death. He asks Elsa if he dies, not to let it ruin her happiness. There is going to be a terrific battle. Paul then speaks the last part of the letter. She asks when he read that letter and where. He says he read it in the trenches. She asks who he is. Paul says he did not know who he was. He says he killed him. He asks if he can go now. She asks why he came there and what he wants. He says he wanted mercy and forgiveness. She asks why he stayed. She falls on the couch crying.
Paul goes down the stairs and tells Frau Holderlin he must say something. Elsa comes down and says she will say it. She embraces her mother and tells her it is over now. She says his life was shattered by the war too. He came there like a blessing. Her mother took him in. She says Paul loves her, and he is going to stay there. Frau Holderlin goes out, calling to her husband. Elsa tells Paul he is not going to kill Walter a second time. He must live for them. Dr. Holderlin comes in and embraces Paul as his son.
Dr. Holderlin goes into Paul’s room and takes out his violin. He brings it to Paul and tells him not to be afraid to make it happy. The Holderlins sit down, and Paul begins to play. Elsa stands up near him. Then she unlocks the piano and accompanies him. Dr. Holderlin puts his arm around his wife.
This sensitive drama portrays the consequences of one death in a war on the man’s family, his fiancée, and the man who killed him. They come to realize how foolish war is and find healing by going on with their lives in loving ways.