Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish director, has turned to history for his latest film. Danton is a thriller about the French Revolution, full of cutting dialogue and overheated action. At its center is a bitter struggle between moderation and zealotry, as embodied by the title character and his rival, Robespierre.
In production notes for the picture, Wajda apologizes for turning to such a familiar period. But he notes that all his films ''address themselves to the issue of man challenging History.'' He justifies his French foray by listing its main concerns: ''how freedom operates as a motor of history; what things threaten history; and (whether) sacrifices (must) be made to protect freedom. . . .''
These questions seem especially challenging when raised by a Polish filmmaker whose movies have sometimes plunged boldly into current events. Wajda's last film, after all, was the 1981 ''Man of Iron,'' which included newsreel footage of the Solidarity movement and featured labor hero Lech Walesa as an actor.
For all its costumes and melodramatics, ''Danton'' too has a strong political dimension, particularly in its raging debates over revolutionary aims. The surprise is that Wajda tries not to portray either of the film's antagonists as a clear-cut hero. Danton comes closer, with his yearning to end the terror he's partly responsible for; and Wajda underlines this yearning by casting a charismatic French star (Gerard Depardieu) in this role. But the director refuses to play down Danton's many eccentricities, and he allows Robespierre a streak of humanity, notably in his compassion for a doomed comrade.
In the end, Wajda shows both men as trapped in a historical web that's inescapable even for those who helped weave it. The revolution itself, meanwhile , is drowning in its own confusion. Danton goes to the guillotine as only a movie star can, dripping with dignity. And viewers are left to ponder the forces that drag social change beyond responsible social control.
Does the director intend ''Danton'' as a metaphor for recent Polish events, with Danton as a surrogate Walesa and Robespierre as a stand-in for the military government or even the Soviet regime? Interviewed by filmmaker Marcel Ophuls in the current issue of American Film magazine, Wajda says Poland was indeed in a revolutionary situation last year, and that ''Danton'' attempts to describe ''the atmosphere of revolution.''
Yet the film is best seen, I think, as a wide-ranging meditation on politics and revolution, rather than a coded commentary on specific occurrences. Wajda seemed to support this view at the New York Film Festival the other day in a press conference conducted by telephone from West Berlin, where he is completing his next picture. The reason for exploring history, he said, is to understand patterns and laws that underlie human affairs. For all its horror and bloodshed, he continued, the French Revolution ''won'' insofar as it brought about new social relationships - just as Solidarity won a ''moral victory'' despite its failure to survive as an institution.
The director feels ''Danton'' illustrates ''one of the tragedies of every revolution: the point when those who bring it about are no longer in a position to determine how it develops.'' All revolutions, he says, are threatened by two things: a tendency to stop prematurely, and a contrary tendency to be taken over by a new group ''who fail to realize the revolutionary ideal.''
''Danton'' focuses on a crucial moment when the French Revolution is pushing beyond its limits, bidding to destroy its own aims and turn to chaos. This focus helps explain the struggle between the main characters - Danton wanting to curtail events before they are overwhelmed by confusion, Robespierre pushing ever further. The masses, meanwhile, remain outside this decisive conflict. ''Having been manipulated,'' says Wajda, ''they can no longer express their will.''
It's possible that ''Danton'' has more biting political meanings and intentions than Wajda cares to let on, fearing for his status in the Polish artistic community (his next project is stage production in Krakow) or his personal well-being. ''There are moments in the history of our country when we can afford to make . . . a political film that one is not ashamed to put one's signature to,'' he told Ophuls, adding that ''right now, this is not the case in Poland.''
In fact, the thrust of his recent work has been away from obvious political slants - in such pictures as ''The Orchestra Conductor'' and ''The Young Girls of Wilko.'' Even the bold ''Man of Iron'' ends with more a whimper than a bang, in a scene where the Gdansk accord between strikers and authorities is referred to as ''nothing but pieces of paper.'' The evidence points to ''Danton'' as less a veiled polemic than an examination of longstanding historical currents, conducted in movie terms rather than scholarly ones, but reasonably resonant and intelligent for all that.
In any case, the carefully crafted surfaces of the movie (which was shot in France) could make it Wajda's most popular work with American audiences. Depardieu, who seems to pop up in every French-language picture that comes along , is sturdy and generally credible in the title role. Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak brings a high-strung energy to Robespierre. The supporting cast is generally strong, with French performers appearing as Danton's cronies and Poles playing Robespierre's.
The cinematography, by Igor Luther, richly captures the colors and textures associated with Jacques Louis David's paintings of the period. Jean-Claude Carriere wrote the screenplay, based on a Polish play that Wajda mounted in Warsaw eight years ago. The rating is PG, although Danton's execution is depicted in gruesome detail.