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As soon as Charley Grayson's financially troubled American carnival arrives in Munich, Germany, Willi, an impoverished local woman, picks the pocket of advance man and spieler Joe Mallon and buys some food. Joe quickly realizes what Willi has done and confronts her. As Joe grabs his wallet from her, Willi bites his hand, impressing him with her spunk. Joe then convinces Charley to hire the English speaking Willi as a kitchen helper and interpreter. When Willi bemoans her ragged dress and filthy skin, Joe finds her some clean clothes and takes her to the shower area. After her shower, Joe tries to kiss her, but she pulls away. Joe persists, however, and Willi soon gives in to his ardor. Later, Frank Collini, the carnival's high-dive attraction, spots Willi and offers to pay her extra to bring coffee to his tent after his performances. Willi accepts, then watches in amazement as Frank climbs a 150-foot ladder and dives into a flaming tank of water. When she later delivers his coffee, he suggests that she train to become his diving partner. Unsure, Willi asks Joe about Frank's idea, and he happily endorses it. Willi begins her training, while continuing to help in the kitchen. One night, after most of the carnival is asleep, Joe whistles for Willi, who goes to him but complains about being treated like a dog. When Willi, who has had a difficult time with men, demands to be treated decently, Joe balks and seduces her again. Under Frank's patient tutelage, Willi's training goes well, and she soon is ready to perform. While they stand on the platform together before her first professional dive, Frank asks Willi to marry him. Willi declines to answer and completes her dive, then finds Joe and tells him about Frank's proposal. Although she insists that she does not return Frank's love, Joe, who has also seduced Peggy, another performer, encourages her to marry the financially secure diver, noting that she can always find love in Joe's arms. Willi is disgusted by Joe's attitude and rushes to Frank. Willi and Frank marry and their act, now called the Great Collinis, becomes the hit of the carnival. Aware of their success, Joe corners Willi one day and, after declaring that he made a mistake letting her marry Frank, demands that she lend him $200. Afraid of her lingering feelings for Joe, Willi stalls and promises to bring him the money that night. Willi is distracted during her afternoon performance, and that night, sneaks out to see Joe and admits she does not have the money. After confessing that she is still in love with him, Willi kisses Joe, who tells her to get some money and run away with him. Before she can leave, Frank catches them together and fights with Joe, eventually knocking him out. Enraged, Frank then informs Willi that they are quitting the carnival and moving to a farm in the United States. Willi angrily protests Frank's decision, but he orders her to bed. The next morning, Willi and Frank apologize to each other and vow to repair their marriage. Later, after Frank's former Army buddy, photographer Bill Vines, snaps their picture for a Life magazine spread, Frank and Willi start to ascend the ladder for a dive. Two-thirds of the way up, a rung breaks and Frank falls to his death. Although Frank's death is ruled an accident, Willi feels guilty and tells Charley she does not want the $5,000 that Frank left her. Bill befriends Willi, but when Willi discovers Joe in her tent one night, she still cannot resist him and spends the night with him. The next morning, however, Willi wakes to find her tent ransacked and the $5,000 gone. Embittered by Joe's betrayal, Willi demands a large pay raise from Charley and announces she is undertaking Frank's most difficult dive. Never having practiced the dive, Willi overextends and breaks her back when she hits the water. With Bill by her side, Willi slowly recuperates at a hospital. Just before her release, Bill starts to propose, but she stops him, claiming not to know what love is. When Charley calls to inform her that the carnival is moving to Frankfurt, however, Willi anxiously asks about Joe and races back to resume her career. Willi assures Joe that she has forgiven him, then as Bill watches with the crowd, dives without fear. Later, in her tent, Joe tells Willi that the two of them are going to make lots of money together and kisses her. When Willi finally is able to resist Joe's advances, calling him "garbage," he slaps her. Furious, Joe reveals that he sabotaged Frank's ladder and will implicate her in his murder if she refuses him. Joe then grabs Willi, who screams, alerting the adoring Groppo, the carnival's mute strong man. Groppo chases Joe onto the ferris wheel and eventually pushes him to his death. After the police lead Groppo away, Willi departs with the devoted Bill.