1913 - a fine August evening. We see the characteristic building of the proud imperial capital. A huge, dishevelled figure staggers drunkenly down the street. A tiny little woman addresses him, he spits in her face and with very clear gestures signals her to get lost. The little servant girl doesn't leave him. She follows the man almost bewitched. Moosbrugger tries to throw her off with a sudden change of direction, but the woman waits for him humbly. He emerges from his hiding-place, crooks his arm like a handcuff round the woman's neck, while with his right hand he stabs his knife rhythmically into her struggling body.

Ulrich, the 35 year old hero of the film, first meets Moosbrugger in the court room where we see the big man for the second time, now clean and tidy in a brand new suit, his face radiating gentle strength and good intentions. "If mankind as a whole could dream Moosbrugger would definitely be born," Ulrich writes in his notebook with undisguised curiosity. Among the onlookers Ulrich's aunt, Diotima, appears. Her beauty shines with a special light in the criminal atmosphere of the court room - this can be read in Ulrich's regard which reflects extreme intelligence, strength and a rare sensitivity accompanying all this. The woman reminds him of the inaugural meeting of the Parallel Action, then dashes out to make the necessary preparations.

During the inaugural meeting of the Parallel Action, the aim of which is to prepare a worthy celebration for the seventieth anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, Ulrich, who has been elected secretary, watches two doorways simultaneously in the reflection of a silver fruit bowl. In one Rachel, Diotima's chambermaid is watching him, in the other Soliman is watching Rachel. Observation is a key element in the philosophical mood of the evening: Diotima's husband keeps his eyes on his wife who is flirting with Dr. Arnheim. The garden full of shadows is enigmatic, as is Ulrich's answer to Diotima when she asks him for advice: give in to any temptation that comes.

On another occasion Ulrich's friend, Walter, watches Ulrich jealously from behind the curtain as he walks in the garden with Walter's wife Clarisse, who is very beautiful, but full of unnatural tension. From the point of view of the Parallel Action she considers the comparison that can be drawn between Nietzche and Moosbrugger especially worthy of notice. Ulrich and Clarisse's relationship is above all intellectual - Walter is as jealous of that as he is of the presumable sensual attraction.

Ulrich is walking home at night lost in thought when two hands grab his shoulders and three gangsters attack him, beating and robbing him. Lying on the ground bleeding and unconscious he is almost run over by a lemon yellow Bugatti, out of which gets a gorgeous woman who takes Ulrich home. When he comes round he gives the woman a little lecture on the fatal casualty of reflection and failure. Bonadea - or as Ulrich later calls her: Bona Dea, "my goddess" - is soon to return when when she does in fact become Ulrich's.

His Grace Count Leinsdorf is scandalized by Ulrich who gives a brief account of the intellectual preparations and received proposals for the Parallel Action in a slightly summary and sceptical way, saying that as individuals everyone is just about satisfied with themselves, on the other hand in general for some sort of universal reason no one feels really good and it seems that the Parallel Action is destined to bring this feeling to light.

The love games of Ulrich and Bonadea aren't disturbed by the demonstration in front of the house, but by the arrival of a phone call and a telegram at almost the same time. On the telephone Clarisse relates with an enthusiastic flood of words the developments of Moosbrugger's second degree trial, while the telegram reads: "My dear son, This is to inform you of my death. My funeral will be on April 6 1914. Please come here to my house as soon as possible. You will learn of your further duties from my will. I count on you to be a support to your sister in these difficult days. Yours, father."

The collapse of Walter and Clarisse's marriage comes to a head at the dinner table following Moosbrugger's trial. Walter is only able to talk about their relationship and his professional and manly jealousy towards Ulrich on a philosophical level until Clarisse's vulgar interjections heighten the tension to breaking point, forcing them both to be frank and speak out about the true feelings hidden behind the philosophy. "Do you love him?" The question that has been torturing Walter is finally put plainly, and Clarisse's quiet, almost tender answer strikes a crushing blow: "I don't want a child from you."

Ulrich is walking home at night down a street in the outskirts, avoiding the puddles reflecting moonlight. Deja vu: the surroundings eerily remind one of the place where Moosbruger was walking at the beginning of the film, and Ulrich is also addressed by a small woman enveloped in a scarf. "Aren't you afraid I'll kill you?" Ulrich asks, giving money to the woman waiting puzzled for his explanation. On arriving home he gets out his pistol because the lights are on in several places in the house. He stops dead in the doorway of his study: the slim figure of a woman is lying on his divan, Clarisse. Having given Ulrich a brief account of what has happened between her and her husband, the woman attacks him both intellectually and sexually. Recovering from his shock, he brushes off her wild advances.

A horse and carriage turns in at the garden gate. Ulrich gets out and touchingly embraces the old servant standing wringing his hands on the steps. The luggage is taken in - we are in his father's house.
For the first time in 20 years Ulrich meets his sister, Agathe. By the secret ordering of fate they are wearing almost identical clothes. They look at each other in wonder and go in hand in hand to where the body is laid out. They talk intimately, and Ulrich only notices now that on the picture hanging from the bleak tapestry on the wall opposite is of Agathe as a little girl in a white dress. This little girl has appeared several times already in the film, maybe in Ulrich's imagination.

Ulrich is doing exercises in the garden in his silk underpants, as we have already seen him. (His saviour Bonadea came upon him like this on one occasion.) Agathe is watching him from behind the lace curtains in the drawing room. She sits down at the piano and improvises tunes as a grotesque accompaniment to Ulrich's movements, as if we were watching a silent film through the window. Later we see them again beside the coffin, reading the will. It was their father's wish to be buried with his medals on his chest. But since the medals have to be given back to the state, without batting an eyelid they swap the originals for the copies their father has had made.

At the funeral Agathe comes in on the arm of her husband whom she is about to leave. The siblings' eyes meet: Ulrich barely perceptibly points to the pocket where Agathe hid her suspender belt in her father's overcoat as a playful final message. They almost laugh out loud.

Agathe and Ulrich are sitting clothed in black at the two ends of the big dining room table having supper. Agathe's husband, who has already left, reminds her of her father. They recall childhood memories, collapsing with laughter. Retracing one of them they go out into the garden to search for one-time cut and buried fingernails and locks of hair with lanterns, on all fours. They turn up the earth, their hands touching. Ulrich glances up in embarrassment and notices the kind of fresh-as-dew sparkle in Agathe's eyes which the sun hasn't yet spoilt.

The siblings go on an excursion into the hills above the small town, sampling each other's thoughts, getting to know each other in this countryside which inspires ultimate questions. Coming out of the peasant house which gives them shelter from the rain Ulrich whispers in Agethe's ear: "They think we're a couple in love." As she cuddles up to him the girl remarks with a laugh: "Then you should kiss me now!" They look at each other from right up close, uncertainly, awkwardly, longingly.

Ulrich is tossing and turning sleeplessly in the night when the phone rings. Clarisse informs him categorically that she wants to visit Moosbrugger. Ulrich, moving as he does in influential circles, must help her.

Doctor Friedenthal, Clarisse and General Stumm go right through the mental hospital. Clarisse is introduced to Moosbrugger as a foreign colleague studying the clinic's establishments and methods. Moosbrugger has undergone an amazing change since we last saw him. He has become somebody, a celebrated, famous personality who takes part himself in the discussions of the doctors researching the general conclusions that can be drawn from his case, as they play cards together in his cell. Guided by her sense of vocation, Clarisse is determined that she will enter the institution either as a nurse or as a patient.

Agathe and Ulrich are having breakfast together. Ulrich makes a suggestion: they should move in together, naturally preserving their personal freedom in love affairs. "I live alone anyway, and you're preparing to divorce..." he says, summing up the situation. This reminds Agathe of the will and without thinking twice about it she falsifies it to exclude her husband.

In a relaxed and intimate manner they browse through books in the library. Leafing through a statute book from the 17th century, Agathe fires Ulrich with moral questions, always translating the problems from the philosophical level to everyday life. Ulrich, who is getting acquainted with "The Paths of the Holy Life" reads a passage out to Agathe. All of a sudden she jumps up, dashes out of the room and hides away in the attic. Ulrich tries to calm her through the door. He talks about the feeling of boundary loss and boundlessness of the inner and outer world and the common traits of love and mysticism. "I was reminded of my first husband, Ulrich, when I held your hand," Agathe's voice sounds through the door. Ulrich stands dumbfounded on the top of the ladder.

Garden party in Vienna - the masked ball is drawing to an end. Ulrich is looking at the flickering flames of torches speared into the lawn when his aunt Diotima comes up behind him in the uniform of a Napoleonic colonel and a mask. The woman has tears in her eyes. This big crying officer is a crazy sight, but beautiful at the same time. An onset of sobbing makes her incapable of answering Ulrich's question as to what the matter is. "We can't talk here, let me take you somewhere else. To my place, for instance, if I may", he suggests.

A carriage turns in in front of Ulrich's house. He helps Diotima down and they go into the house arm in arm. Diotima is jealous of Arnheim, Ulrich feels that right away. The woman is slightly drunk, she alternately grabs the hilt of the sword or runs her fingers through her hair. "You're the only person in front of whom I'm not ashamed of myself, because you're so bad. Because you're much worse than I am," says Diotima, pointing the unsheathed sword at his throat. "You don't know how bad I am," replies Ulrich, grabbing the woman's uniform by the neck and sweeping her off her feet. They struggle. All at once Diotima gives a sigh and surrenders, leaving Ulrich to do as he pleases with her. "Don't you mind that I desire another woman in you?" asks Ulrich, to which Diotima replies, "I'm also thinking of another man." No more is said...

Bonadea's Bugatti stops in front the house and the woman calls our cheerfully to Ulrich in a loud voice. He appears in the doorway looking weary, pale and dishevelled. Bonadea jumps out of the car, tries to be friendly, but Ulrich is distant. "Do you want to break off with me?" she asks with a veiled look when Diotima joins him in the doorway, looking if possible even more tousled than Ulrich. "Could you give a lift part of the way?" she asks of Bonadea, and gets into the car. A tear rolls down Bonadea's cheek. Ulrich turns away and strolls into the garden. Bonadea gets in beside Diotima who offers her a cigarette. They sit silently in the car smoking.

Ulrich is writing a letter to Agathe. The little girl in the white dress from the picture that we've seen already appears as if summoned. Ulrich is trying to meditate on the categories of "do" and "don't", "right" and "wrong", but the little girl keeps butting in: "So can I have a sip of your wine?" Wine and water symbolize the mingling, the spritzer of right and wrong in the mind of the little girl who, bored of his philosophizing, starts throwing her dolls at Ulrich. Losing his patience he jumps up, but by the time he gets to centre of the room the little girl has vanished together with her dolls.

Agathe is sitting in the drawing room of her father's house reading Ulrich's letter. "The world therefore can chose between two possibilities: it either falls into ruin due to its own paralysed morale or through its restless immoralists." Agathe is surrounded by trunks, suitcases, books packed into boxes and childhood dolls. On the wall opposite hangs her childhood painting in a white dress and a bit further off a mirror. Agathe glances up and looks at herself in the mirror. She takes the medallion depicting her first husband off the chain round her neck and throws it into one of the trunks. She threads a phial of poison that she has found in her father's desk onto the chain instead.

Lorries are standing in the courtyard of Ulrich's house. Workmen are unloading furniture, crates and suitcases. "Ask the young lady," says the old servant in reaction to the puzzled Ulrich, who, running up the stairs finds Agathe, dripping wet, wrapped in a bath robe among open suitcases and scattered clothes. They can hardly contain their happiness. "I've sold Daddy's house, and I thought we could live together for a bit. After all we're brother and sister," she says in explanation for her unexpected arrival. Seized by a strange rapture, they just stand and look at each other. Finally Agathe proves the stronger. "I'm off," she exclaims with a laugh, feigning levity, and disappears into her room. Ulrich hurries into his study, puts on a record, pours himself a drink and stands in front of the mirror. Dipping his finger into his drink he tries to draw Agathe's profile onto his own reflection. Bonadea appears in the doorway. On the pretext of his sister sleeping in the next room, he sends her away. Bonadea doesn't believe him, she starts to weep, making a scene. "I've decided to love women from now on as if there were my sister," he remarks, trying to make himself understood. Bonadea draws away from him, looking at Ulrich as if seeing him for the first time. "How perverse you are!". She turns on her heel and leaves.

A montage shows Agathe and Ulrich's new life, in a playful fashion, to the music of one of Strauss's waltzes. They rearrange the house, take turns at hitting Ulrich's punch-ball, get ready for balls, Ulrich helps Agathe button up her dress, and she ties his tie. At Diotima's ball Ulrich watches Agathe dancing out of the corner of his eye. They sit together in the garden, bicycle in the park. Ulrich can hardly catch Agathe who has let go of the handlebars. Shrieking they tear down a winding mountain path at the end of which there's a clearing with a small lake. They don't even have time to scream before toppling into the water.
They dry themselves naked on either side of a bush, their clothes hanging from the branches. They talk about their childhood when it was natural for them to see each other naked. Ulrich jumps into the water, Agathe after him. The splash each other, duck down and open their eyes under the water at almost the same time. Their kicking limbs seem to take on their childhood form for a moment. Instinctively they swim towards each other and hold hands. They rise to the surface. This is the moment when they should kiss - as they are both perfectly aware. Agathe pushes Ulrich away from her and swims off.
Once again they are sitting on the shore, on either side of the bush watching the lake in silence.

The siblings are preparing for Diotima's soirée. Ulrich tiptoes up behind his sister and, locking his arms around her, tenderly draws her towards him. They look with curiosity into each other's eyes. Ulrich turns round, goes into his study and phones to cancel the evening.
They sit in the room unable to move. The decision has been taken and from now on they don't care about any sort of prohibition, but some even stronger desire forces them into calmness.

Ulrich is asleep on the divan in his study when the bell rings. Rachel, Diotima's chambermaid, is standing in the gate, a bundle beside her, pleading for help. Sobbing, she tells him of Diotima and Bonadea's odd lifestyle, strange books in which everyone is naked, some sort of libertinism, a foreign marquis, complicated positions and that they asked her to get undressed. On seeing her bulging stomach, Diotima got into an extraordinary state, becoming even wilder, which by this time she found impossible to bear...

A hansom cab stops in a narrow street in the outskirts. Ulrich helps Rachel down and takes her arm. Then they walk like this through the crowd of beggars and cripples. An old woman takes them into a poky bed-sit. "Thank you for your help, it'll be fine here for me, says Rachel gratefully. Ulrich gives her money and promises to work something out. Outside his house Ulrich jumps out of the hansom cab and rushes upstairs. He tears open the door of the bedroom - seeing with relief that Agathe is still there. "Sorry, I was frightened that you'd gone!" he says by way of excuse.

Ulrich is wandering around the dark garden while Agathe plays the piano in the drawing room. Bottles and books are scattered everywhere, ashtrays full of cigarette ends, and the general chaos from the unfinished rearrangement. "You won't catch me!" teases the little girl in the white dress from among the trees. Shots are heard. Agathe jerks her head; Ulrich is standing opposite her, dishevelled, his eyes wild, shooting at the piano. They gaze at each other. Ulrich steps over to Agathe and carefully runs his fingers through her hair. "I had to do it. I'd be just as ready to shoot the mirror to bits if you were looking at yourself in it..." Before they have time to realize it they are kissing, stroking and undressing each other. They tumble onto the carpet, the table tips up and books, a tray, a bottle of wine and glasses come crashing down on them. This sobers them in an instant and drags them back to everyday reality.

Walter is sitting in his bare studio staring at the empty canvas. Clarisse storms in with the idea of bringing Moosbrugger out of the mental institution to nurse him..."It's a terrible thing to identify with madness, but it's a brilliant decision!" Clarisse herself seems to have identified with madness. "Can you imagine Jesus as the director of a mine? Or as an official of the monument inspectorate?" Beside himself, Walter pounces on Clarissse and, fighting and yelling obscenities, drags her to the ground and rapes her. Clarisse staggers into the hall and phones Ulrich for help.
Ulrich arrives and goes into the studio. The bleeding and tousled Walter looks at him, tears shining in his eyes, unable to speak. Ulrich finds Clarisse in the garden almost completely naked, bleeding and trembling. He kneels down beside her. Clarisse is planning Moosbrugger's rescue, drawing a parallel between the murderer and Walter or Ulrich. She makes Ulrich promise to help. Taking a small bit of bread out the pocket of her torn dress she shares it with Ulrich.

At home Ulrich discovers that Agathe has left. Only a sheet of paper lies on the ground covered with two words: it's forbidden, it's forbidden, it's forbidden..." Ulrich sits shattered on the threshold.

Agathe sits down on a grave in the cemetery playing with the phial of poison hanging round her neck. A man, Lindner, goes up to her and, introducing himself politely, offers his help.

General Stumm virtually breaks in on Ulrich who is lying half drunk in the bedroom. With a smile he tosses aside Agathe's underwear and triumphantly informs Ulrich that he has discovered the crowning concept of the Parallel Action. In other words he has found the guiding principle and leading concept that will bring social tensions to an end, encourage mothers once again to give birth, reinforce the backbone of the subjects, give an aim to youth, determine the boundaries between good and evil and restore the world order brought into motion by God: the solution, therefore, is war - but this is said by Ulrich, referring to Moltkera, to Stumm's great sorrow.

Rachel sits terrified in the bed-sit. Outside you can hear ghastly shouting, a burning man dashes out of one of the flats, his wife with a can of petrol behind him. Clarisse comes into the room, reassures her that Ulrich has sent her and puts a wad of banknotes down on the table.

Clarisse rushes into Ulrich's house and grabs hold of the half drunk Ulrich, saying: "Let's go and rescue Moosbrugger."

Clarisse and Ulrich - the latter needs a bit of support - pay a visit on Dr. Friedenthalt in the mental hospital. At an opportune moment Clarisse picks up his keyring, then leaves to go to the cloakroom. Dr. Friedenthal is about to set out after her but Ulrich starts talking to him. In a dark nook of the corridor Clarisse gets out a white overall and puts it on. With the aid of various ruses she manages to get into Moosbrugger's cell. "Let's leave the details for now," she says, putting an end to the murderer's polite conversation. "I've come to release you. But freedom has its price." Moosbrugger enquires about the conditions with elegance befitting a star murderer. Clarisse quickly lists all the things to be done in order to change his outward appearance. "We'll dye your hair, cut off your beard and your leg." The slightly shocked Moosbrugger agrees to have his right leg cut off after a bit of bargaining.

Two nurses are stretching out a blanket in Rachel's impoverished lodgings, behind it they set up a temporary operating table - the surgeon and assistant are getting prepared. The door opens and Clarisse comes in with Moosbrugger, who arrives with gestures befitting a great artist.
Behind the blanket they begin the operation, at the end of which Clarisse leaves with Moosbrugger's leg wrapped in newspaper under her arm. The nurses hastily pack up their things and lay the murderer on the bed. The doctor hands a package to Rachel: "It's a leather case which you have to strap to the stump. You'll find the instructions inside." Rachel dampens her handkerchief and wipes the sleeping Moosbrugger's brow.

Clarise barges in on Walter with a crazed look on her face, and dumps Moosbrugger's cut off leg down on the red velvet lectern. "You should paint this!" Wallter looks shocked, he begins to understand what this is about.

Agathe is walking through the huge halls of the Kunshistorishes Museum with Lindner. They are discussing the beauty of the naked body. Lindner misunderstands one of Agathe's gestures and offers her his brotherly love which the girl turns down, alluding to her feelings for Ulrich. Lindner is scandalized.

Moosbrugger is recovering in Rachel's bed-sit. He makes advances to the young servant girl which she doesn't reject.

Agathe finds Ulrich in the bedroom where he is asleep fully clothed on the bed. She kneels down beside him and takes him in her arms. Her lips close over her brother's mouth with boundless femininity. Ulrich wakes up and passionately returns her kisses. Agathe gets undressed then undresses Ulrich. Their limbs intertwine, they themselves change, moving into each other. Lights flash, their bodies glow white hot.

The siblings are running along the seashore naked, shouting like crazy birds. They appear on the top of a rock and throw themselves into the deep water. Softly, soundlessly they sink in the foamy waves which flame up with magnesium-light. Agathe sits blinking in the empty hotel room. The little girl in the white dress unfolds from the dazzling light. Agathe stretches out on the bed. Through the soft dips of the sheet and pillows one can see a mountain path along which Ulrich is coming in a white suit with a straw hat. Then we can see Agathe on the mountain path in a white dress with a straw hat and Ulrich is rolling on the bed naked. They dash against each other on the hilltop like meteors, and their naked bodies are entangled on the bed as in their mother's womb.

Rachel gives birth to Soliman's baby. Moosbrugger assists at the birth. He is awkward and extremely nervous, he'd like to help as a perfect midwife. With the tiny, bluish purple, wrinkled, yelling baby in his lap he bursts into tears. Then puts the child tenderly at Rachel's breast. Now all three are crying.

Walter is feverishly painting the leg which has already started to decompose. Flies and horseflies buzz in the studio, constantly settling on Walter who is feeling so inspired he doesn't even notice them.

Clarisse's suitcases are on the seat, while she is crouching in the net of the luggage rack on the train. When the conductor comes in she tickles his ear with her ticket. "Frog prince!" she whispers.

Clarisse arrives at the seaside hotel. Without a word of greeting she opens the guest register and immediately finds what she was looking for. "Room 29: Ulrich Klenner, Agathe Klenner. Start of stay: June 23 1914."Agathe's name is crossed out. Clasrisse categorically demands the key to room 29. In the corridor upstairs she opens the door of room 29. Ulrich is lying beside the wall in a terrible state. A tiny object glistens beside him. Clarisse sits him up, peels off his clothing and starts licking the dirt off him.

Walter tries to take his leave of Ulrich and Clarisse on a tiny island where he has taken them. Sitting in the kitchen Ulrich stares in front of himself with an expressionless face. Clarisse is building signs from stones and bird feathers in the sand.
When Walter leaves in a motorboat a small armoured patrol boat arrives at the island. Two soldiers unload a machine gun and several crates. They start to dig.

Ulrich is walking alone on the island. Clarisse is looking at her little messages built from stones. The constantly appearing and then disappearing little girl in a white dress deciphers them.
In the meantime the soldiers have built up a regular little firing position. From the neighbouring rock Ulrich has noticed a sign which has been seen many times before: a feather across two stones. But now beside it is a tiny glistening object: Agathe's phial of poison.
According to the interpretation heard in the voice of the little girl with a white dress, "that means I desire to see you, come to me, quickly, like a bird, but you won't find me."