New York — Political commitment burns through the films of Andrzej Wajda, the leading Polish director. Examples include his ''Danton,'' a study of the French Revolution with parallels to recent Polish events; ''Man of Marble,'' about Poland during its Stalinist period; and ''Man of Iron,'' containing footage of Solidarity agitation. Other works go back to the early '60s, when Mr. Wajda established his international reputation with a trilogy on Polish wartime struggles.
By contrast, his latest drama has a romantic slant. ''A Love in Germany'' (reviewed in the Nov. 30 Arts & Leisure section), now in American release, focuses on a German shopkeeper having a hopeless affair with a Polish prisoner while her husband is away fighting World War II.
What attracted an urgently political filmmaker to such a tale? It was no whim , as I learned from Wajda during a rare New York interview. He turned again to a bygone time because the past can illuminate the present. And he dealt with romantic passion because he feels that attitudes toward love can be profoundly revealing.
''In a totalitarian system,'' he explained through a translator, ''everyone is terrorized, even if they accept the system. Individual love is always prohibited, because it gives a sense of freedom and self-worth. Everyone should love Hitler, not each other!''
In his new drama, Wajda continued, the heroine's courage to love an ''enemy'' transforms her - giving her ''an inspiration, a certainty, a self-sureness.'' Thus he sees the story as optimistic, despite the tragic ending of the affair. ''It was most important for the film to say that love brings freedom,'' he feels. ''The reason other people set out to destroy (the heroine) is that they envy her feelings. . . .''
The most respected and influential of all Polish filmmakers, Wajda has become a father figure for a generation of younger directors in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. In recent years he has worked both inside and outside Poland, according to the requirements of each new project. (''A Love in Germany'' is a German-French production.) Much of his artistic independence stems from this flexibility, he says, and he hopes to keep such ''autonomy'' for as long as possible. ''There are films such as 'Danton' that I could not make in Poland,'' he explains. ''Yet there are films I can only make in Poland because of their subjects.''
He also credits two other circumstances for his relative independence as an artist. One is his ability to work in both film and theater. ''Whenever I'm unable to make a film I work on the stage,'' he says, ''and I derive a tremendous satisfaction from it. My third source of autonomy consists of the fact that I have made many movies already - so I can teach and help younger directors. There are many forms of freedom.''
Can films with strong social and political views be produced in Poland today? ''Neither my colleagues nor I have given up on the idea of making political films,'' Wajda replies. ''That's not because we are maniacs for political film, but because other forms don't have as much meaning for us.''
One reason for this, he says, is that ''the political films we are capable of making, no one else can make for us. This is because nobody else has the political experiences we have, and because Poland lies between the East and West. This experience is extremely valuable. Whenever we are able to exploit it, our films acquire a special role - they say something to the world that others are unable to say.''
At the moment, according to Wajda, such films are hard to launch in his country. ''At a time of crisis even production aspects are difficult,'' he notes. ''It's difficult just to make a film. Still, many are being made.''
Can political films have a real effect on the people who see them? Wajda's answer reveals a lot about political attitudes in different parts of the world. ''I waver from extreme optimism to extreme pessimism,'' he admits. ''When I show a film in the West, I often think people look at it superficially. I could show it or not show it. It falls into some kind of black hole.
''But when I try to make a political film in Poland and I meet with all the obstacles,'' he adds with a wry smile, ''I think there must be something tremendously important about what I'm trying to do. Otherwise, why would they set all these obstacles in my way? And then I'm optimistic. Something must be present, if one side is doing so much that these films not be made.''
Asked which he cares about most - exploring difficult ideas or reaching a very large audience - Wajda says that ''it's always ideal to combine these things. I make films in Poland because it's my country and I get my important subject matters there. But to make films for a very, very broad audience has always been my dream.''
Known to be a longtime Hollywood fan, Wajda sees no need for conflict between commercial moviemaking and serious ideas. In his view, ''Many people want to say something original and interesting - for example, about the situation of women. And many people are making such films. But the best, most powerful, and most interesting is 'Tootsie,' a commercial film!''
He credits the movie's excellence to ''the fantastic precision and intelligence'' of ''Tootsie'' director Sydney Pollack, one of many ''commercial filmmakers (who) set limits for themselves in order to reach broad audiences. This produces a kind of tension, which some directors are able to break through and make fantastic films.''
Not all popular communications get Wajda's approval, however. Television displeases him. ''The way of watching a film on television is unacceptable to me ,'' he states flatly. ''I think of a film as a unity - all the elements have a higher consistency, are integrated. It is not an excerpt from a serial. On television a film becomes a fragment of a larger reality which has no beginning or end.''
More generally, Wajda worries about audiences growing fragmented, and less serious about what they see. ''When I began to make films 30 years ago,'' he recalls, ''nobody asked about the level of the viewers. We were people who saw life at the edge of tragedy, and films were about that. The audience could laugh , could be moved - everything was possible. Today everything has become much more complicated.''
The chief problem is that ''suddenly the audience has become very young,'' Wajda says. ''Their life experience is alien to us. They don't understand directors my age and we don't understand them. It's not quite clear what we want to say to them, especially since we are convinced they have nothing to say to us. This is such a serious question today that we have to consider whether making movies at all makes sense. Should one look for another form of self-expression?''
At self-questioning moments like these, Wajda finds the stage especially appealing. ''Perhaps it's best to have a more direct influence - and therefore a more powerful one - on a small group of people,'' he says, noting the satisfactions of interacting with performers during a theatrical project.
Despite such musings, Wajda remains an active and energetic member of the film community, at least for now. He is especially animated when discussing his latest movie, granting its flaws as readily as he defends its methods. He owns that the flashback structure of ''A Love in Germany'' is ''antiquated'' and ''ineffective'' and wishes he had made one major character - a man of the '80s visiting the town of his boyhood - a Pole rather than a German. Yet he takes open pride in the picture's savage tone and the nightmarish humor of some scenes near the end.
''I wanted to understand that country through its own art,'' he says. ''Germans must be seen through expressionist cinema, because in the expressionist film and painting of the '20s there is somehow the actual soul of Germany. When I'm dealing with this subject I can't refrain from reaching for this material. . . .
Above all, Wajda loves the filmmaking process that allows him to explore such ideas. ''The two truly creative moments in the work of a director,'' he says, ''are the selection of the subject - what this film should say - and the selection of the actors. That is where it all begins . . . the rest is craft. Yet it isn't good to invent a film entirely beforehand. The director must make a film as if he were telling a story to a live person.''