Berlin, the summer of 1945. Mathilde Tegge, the wife of Gestapo officer Franze Tegge, meets Camillo Baumgartner, a vagabond gypsy tight rope walker and circus artist, when he saves the life of her only daughter. She is immediately attracted to this mysterious stranger, and he seems drawn to her. She doesn't know Camillo is a man with a mission. He has been searching for Mathilde's husband, the man he blames for the murder of his entire family when they were deported to a concentration camp.
To keep Mathilde and his daughter safe, Franz cannot tell his wife he survived the final battles of the war. He made a deal with the O.S.S., the U.S. Secret Service, to get his family to safety in America. In return he has infiltrated a clandestine group of former Nazis to betray their plans for escape from Berlin to South American through the notorious "Rat Line", an escape route through the Vatican.
Mathilde's daily life is a struggle to survive haunted by memories from the trauma of war intensified by hunger and exhaustion. She scrambles for bits of food, stands on line for bread, and labors endless hours to clear away the ashes of her destroyed city, yet even as she remembers her husband she dreams of Camillo. Mathilde is falling in love, torn between the desires of her heart and duty to her husband who, though officially "missing in action", may be alive or dead.
One day a young man arrives with news that Franz was killed, but Mathilde doesn't trust him at first. Over time she accepts the news, but even as she arranges for Franz to be declared legally dead, she knows deep in her heart she is doing this to be free for Camillo. Unexpectedly, when Mathilde tries to tell him how she feels, he pushes her away.
Camillo has learned that Franz is alive, and assumes Mathilde has been covering for her husband. He is angry, and to his surprise, broken hearted admitting to himself, in spite of his hatred for murderer of his wife and son, he has fallen in love with this woman. Still, his anger grows until he convinces himself Mathilde is a traitor, no better than her loathsome husband. An enraged Camillo tells Mathilde why he sought he out, his lust for revenge.
On learning Franz was alive, Camillo found a way to exact his revenge. He offers to help Franz and his evil companions escape from the occupying authorities. Neither Camillo nor Mathilde know the dangerous double-cross Franz is planning.
Mathilde is devastated by Camillo's rejection, but when Franz finally tells her his true plan, to take them to safety in America, she tells her husband she will not go. Franz refuses to leave his family behind, and Germany is too dangerous for him to stay.
Mathilde is sure her life with Franz, and her hope for Camillo, is over. She learns that each of her men is going to betray the other. Franz will have Camillo and the Nazis arrested by the Americans, and Camillo will have the Nazis captured by the British. She is the only one who knows what is really happening. Their lives are in her hands, and Mathilde must choose. Will she save her husband and be faithful to her marriage vows regardless of the crimes he has committed while in the Gestapo, or Camillo, the man she loves in spite of the problems they would face? No one, neither gypsy or German, would tolerate love between a vagabond gypsy man and a virtuous German woman.
Mathilde makes her choice. She warns Camillo, and he escapes while Franz is killed in a deadly battle between the American and British allies and the Nazis.
Mathilde has lost the two most important men in her life, and must struggle to survive alone. She made an agonizing choice, but she is confident it was the right one. She chose her love for Camillo, the love that gave her strength. She believes, though he might hate her now, one day he will love her again. Mathilde will wait for that day, no matter how long it takes.