Based on Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, a Russian prince loves a peasant girl but is separated from her when he is in the army. They meet again after she has suffered, and he wants to make it up to her.
In the Russian countryside in 1875 peasants plow and sow fields while singing. Matrona Pavlovna (Jessie Ralph) calls to Katusha Maslova (Anna Sten) that the Prince is arriving today. Katusha runs into the house to put on her Sunday dress.
In a coach on the road Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov (Fredric March) tells Aunt Marie (Ethel Griffies) and Aunt Sophia (Gwendolyn Logan) that he likes the smell of spring. Aunt Marie urges him to study for his officer examinations, but Dmitri says he does not like the army and would rather be in the civil service. He says they could have a revolution in Russia, but they say that is ridiculous. He complains about tyrants and oppression. They ask where he got that nonsense, and he says he read it in a book.
Peasants gather in front of the mansion as Katusha with a little pig changes her dress. Dmitri arrives, and one by one the peasants present the Prince with food. He tells Aunt Marie that they need the food more than he does. He wants to thank them and call them “brothers in suffering,” but Marie gets him to go inside. Katusha wishes him happiness and hands him the pig. He recognizes her and is amazed that she has grown from a little girl into a beautiful woman, a butterfly. Marie warns him that she is not to be treated as an equal. Sophia has been teaching her, but Marie says she will never make her into a lady. Dmitri says if they all took their clothes off, they would appear all the same.
Katusha is milking a cow, and Dmitri shows her the book Land and Freedom by Gregory Simonson. He tells her that they are all equal. She asks who would do the work. He asks her who the air belongs to, and the water. He wants to make her understand. He orders her to kiss him, and she kisses his chin. He asks her why she did it. He says he as a nobleman could force her, but she says he did not force her. She starts crying, and he says it was a philosophical discussion; he did not have a desire to kiss her. She puts his head on his chest and feels comforted.
Marie and Sophia talk about how much time Dmitri and Katusha are spending. Outside Katusha has Dmitri’s hat and climbs a tree. He chases her and sits on a branch beside her. She wants to have something to remember him by. He hopes she will not forget him and kisses her. He promises he will see her every summer. She will have to wait ten months. He says after four years in the army they can be together all the time. She gives him violets from the conservatory.
Dmitri says goodbye to Marie, Sophia, and Katusha and boards the train. An army officer reprimands Dmitri for ignoring the General’s wife. The officer says he reads too much, and he throws Land and Freedom in the fire-place. He leaves, and Dmitri retrieves the book and dusts it off.
Peasants sing while army officers dine with ladies. Dmitri is drinking and kisses a lady. Outside Dmitri on a horse practices a charge with the cavalry. At another party officers are paired off with ladies while the peasants provide the music. Dmitri is smoking and kissing a woman on the couch. They drink from the same glass. He slaps a waiter and tells him to get out. He tears the cover off Land and Freedom and lights it in the fireplace to light his cigarette.
At night Dmitri arrives home just in time for the Easter church service. Marie and Sophia have been waiting with Katusha, who smiles at Dmitri. Marie says he has not been there for two years. He calls Katusha an angel in a white dress. They leave for church. Dmitri learns that Katusha is not married although she has had good offers. The service of the Russian Orthodox Church is sung amid incense and icons. People carrying candles enter after the priest. People kiss each other on the cheeks and say, “Christ is risen.” Dmitri kisses Katusha on her mouth.
Later at home Marie says it is bedtime. Dmitri admits he likes army life now. He kisses his aunts goodnight and goes upstairs to his room. In her room Katusha tells Matrona that she may not see Dmitri again for a long time. She gets ready for bed, and Matrona leaves her. Servants douse candles, and everyone is going to bed. Dmitri opens his window and looks out. Katusha also opens her window. Dmitri goes downstairs and out the front door. He sees Katusha’s open window and looks in at her combing her long hair. They greet each other, and she kisses his hand. He asks if she forgot him, and she says he has. He asks her to walk and talk with him. They hear an aunt calling, and he lifts her out the window. He says it is cold out and takes her into the conservatory. She gives him some violets, and he remembers. She complains that two summers passed. He asks if she no longer loves him. He says he may be killed and says she has changed. He says he is still in love with her. He kisses her, and it starts raining on the glass roof.
At dawn Dmitri is dressed and gives Matrona an envelope to give to Katusha. He says goodbye and leaves on his horse. Katusha wakes up and sees it is 6:15. Matrona gives her the envelope and says Dmitri is gone. Katusha opens it and finds money worth 100. Dmitri meets the officer coming to fetch him who says the best way is to kiss and ride away.
A few months later Katusha is taking care of a wounded lamb. Matrona says the Prince may come tomorrow. Marie and Sophia speak to Katusha alone. Marie says her condition is obvious. She is dismissed and must leave immediately. Sophia tells Marie that it might have been Dmitri. Marie says they must protect Dmitri from her. Katusha tells Matrona that she has to go. Matrona says Dmitri will only be passing through on a train.
At night in the rain Katusha waits at the train station. The train comes by, and she looks for Dmitri. She finds him playing cards and tries to call to him, but he cannot hear her. She falls on the wet ground.
Katusha is carrying a small coffin while Matrona carries a cross. Katusha kisses the coffin and puts it in a little grave.
Seven years later in Moscow at an aristocratic dance Dmitri is engaged and says Missy Kortchagin (Jane Baxter) may actually be in love with him. Her father, Prince Kortchagin (C. Aubrey Smith) hopes that Dmitri will become a judge too. Kortchagin says Dmitri must report to his court in the morning for jury duty.
In the courtroom the jury with Dmitri take their seats. Three prisoners are brought in. They are the waiter Simon Kartinkin (Leonid Kinskey), the servant Eugenia Botchkova (Dale Fuller), and Katusha. Dmitri remembers his experiences with her. She implies her occupation is in a place of prostitution. Judge Kortchagin accuses them of poisoning a man and robbing him by having Katusha give him the poison in a brandy. Simon and Eugenia plead not guilty. Katusha says she thought it was a sleeping potion given because the man was drunk and unmanageable.
The jury finally agrees on a verdict. They say that Katusha is guilty of giving the powder but without intent to rob. The court convenes, and the judge sentences all three to five years of penal servitude in Siberia. Katusha is to work at hard labor in the mines. She pleads that she is not guilty of anything. Dmitri tells the judge that a mistake was made because they agreed that she did not have any intent to rob or murder; but the judge says their statement did not say that, and he will not change. He says they must try twenty revolutionaries; they cannot be lenient with them because they are dangerous.
In jail Katusha tells the women about her sentence. Katusha gives some money for vodka and drinks. She thought they were going to let her off. Two women get into a fight, and an officer comes in to separate them. Gregory Simonson (Sam Jaffe) comes in with a bucket of soup and ladles it out. He tells Katusha that she is guilty of being poor. She learns his name and asks him about his book. He says he was convicted of talking. He raised his voice against injustice. The officer hits him and takes him out. Katusha says the book was explained to her that all people are equal. She laughs derisively.
Dmitri asks to see a prisoner. Many prisoners are trying to talk from behind wire walls. Dmitri asks to see Katusha, but they cannot hear each other. He tells the officer, and in his case he is allowed to see her in a room but for only five minutes. He asks if she knows him. She says he used to come and see her, but she forgot his name. He says he is Dmitri and was on the jury. He asks why she left his aunts. She says she had a baby who died. She tried to find work in Moscow. He asks why he was not told, but she says he was not there to be told. She asks him why he is bringing her back to life. He says he wants to make some recompense. She asks if he means money again. She asks if he remembers Simonson, who is there too. They are going to Siberia, but Dmitri is not. He says he will come back, but she tells him to not come back and forget her. She tells another woman that it hurts too much to come back to life again. She sobs.
At a dinner Kortchagin tells Dmitri that he will fight Dmitri’s appeal to overturn his decision because he never had one reversed. Dmitri asks what punishment the man who made her what she is should get, and he confesses he is the man. Missy complains that this is not in good taste. Dmitri says he could have married her or taken care of her. If she had been in his class, he would have been forced to marry her. Kortchagin says you cannot treat different classes equally. Dmitri says they are better because they serve, and they call him a socialist. Missy asks him if she will have to keep the house. Dmitri says he was right then and is wrong now. He says they are gluttonous while millions go hungry.
Dmitri pleads to officers, but they say they can do nothing for him. One laughs at him because he feels responsible, but he says he has not enjoyed the woman Dmitri has. Another says a peasant must be kept in her place. They must protect their wealth and their land. Dmitri quotes Jesus about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
At home Dmitri looks at the picture of himself when he was young and remembers talking with Katusha and leaving money for her. He explains the book and promises to remember her forever. He plays some notes on the piano and remembers the church service. A tear falls from his eye. He kneels before an altar and prays for courage so that he can right so many wrongs. He asks for help to live again. He sees it is raining outside.
Dmitri finds out when they are sending the prisoners to Siberia. He meets with Katusha again and says he cannot get her out even though he tried. He asks her to forgive him. She says it is finished. He says he must make up for his wrongs in deeds. He asks her to marry him. She asks why. He says he wants to save his soul. She says he disgusts her; she would rather hang herself. He says they must raise themselves. She says he cannot raise the dead. He says he will love her even if she does not marry him. He says he belongs with her. She says she learned how to live without happiness. She cries and goes out.
Missy tells Dmitri she cannot believe that he is leaving her for a convict. He says he is giving up all his possessions. She asks if he can give her up so easily. He says it is not easy. She says he is leaving her because he loves the girl. He admits he does. She says she can’t fight that.
The prisoners carrying bags are leaving. Chains are fastened to their wrists. Simon sits on the ground and lays down. A man says he is sick. Katusha says her friend will not do anything for her because he is trying to save his conscience, not her. An officer with a whip makes the prisoners move.
Dmitri is telling his peasants that he has divided his land so that they each will have a parcel to keep and pass on to their children. He shakes hands with them.
At the border of Siberia the prisoners are sitting on the ground. A man says not many come back from there. A carriage arrives, and Dmitri asks permission to join a prisoner. He is told to go inside, and they fetch Katusha. He tells her he gave away his land and his friends. He cannot live until she forgives him. He says he must help to undo the wrongs he did and the injustices of the world. She says she has forgiven him, but she says she is not worthy. He says those who have suffered innocently like her are holy. He says the years between were mistaken and empty. He says all his life has been a search for the happiness of their childhood. He says the five years will be over soon, and they will go on. They go out together and walk with the other prisoners happily.
This drama portrays the economic and social injustice of Russian society in the 19th century. An aristocrat has a happy friendship with a peasant girl in childhood but loses contact with her while he is in the army. When he becomes away of her suffering and an injustice, he realizes that he must change his life and help her in order to live again in the love and happiness they experienced before.