Driving through Paris in midmorning traffic, his bearded assistant at the wheel, Polish director Andrzej Wajda labors to explain how he landed in France to begin work on ''Danton,'' his film about the Reign of Terror 200 years ago.
''When we start the whole project,'' he begins, ''co-production decide 40 percent shooting in Poland and 60 percent in France.'' His Slavic accent gives a rich, slow-rolling cadence to the words. ''But the situation in Poland actually very complicated. 'Twas impossible to . . . uh . . . ,'' he winces and retreats. ''Technically and for many, many reasons - we moved to Paris.''
The subject of a popular uprising that succeeded, if only temporarily, compels him. He searches for words and meaning with his hands, trying to pluck a clarifying image of today from thin air.
''There's a few very good films that are really the art. But I'm looking for a different cinema, for film touching real problems, real lives. . . .''
Wadja's ability to pursue this search attests to his stature as Poland's preeminent filmmaker. He has more freedom of movement than all but a few Polish civilians - government officials, most likely, and a couple of cardinals. And though he dances along a jagged edge where society's frozen surface gives way to the cold current of dissent flowing underneath, he is offered considerable artistic independence by the military government.
''Pressures I have felt all the time,'' Wajda says with a shrug. ''On the one hand there is the public, the audience which expects something. This is the most important pressure, as far as I am concerned. All my strength depends on the success of those films, on the hit they make with the public.
''On the other hand, there is a normal political pressure depending on the times we live in. Times change, and those pressures are sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker.''
We arrive at the French National Television cutting room. Nobody there looks at the Solidarity lapel pin stuck in the baize wall above the editing table. In better days, Wajda wore the pin - in Gdansk, in Kracow, in Warsaw. But in the dimness of the room its proclamation seems no more than a whisper.
''I wouldn't be making a film about the French Revolution if I were not visualizing for myself what the revolution was,'' Wajda says, rolling up his sleeves. ''I can imagine quite easily its heroes. I see those people who are fighting for changes, since I know what a man is like when he must fight to destroy a system which otherwise seems impossible to destroy - I see him.''
The man he turns to watch absorbedly on an 8-by-11-inch screen mounted on the edit table is Gerard Depardieu, a new order of French hero. The table is the size of a large desk, slightly higher, with a screen and a small oval speaker set into the galvanized blue metal. Four outlying spindles feed their quantities of film through a central projection mechanism and a handsome Polish woman with glasses jogs the controls, situated where the drawers would be, while the others in the edit team go softly about their tasks, making the room seem full with six in it.
''I have tried to make a sober film,'' Wajda reflects on the way to lunch. ''You see a lot of violence on the screens, which is just somebody slashing somebody else with a razor. But real violence is the passion of the actors. It's in the man, a sense of desperation, so they should play each take as if they were playing for the last time in their life. This can make an impression.''
What made him turn to film?
''It's very difficult to say. I wanted to start from the beginning. I was looking for a slot for myself. I think I found it in the movies, since this is a field where you work with many people, and what is important is the sense of responsibility for others. Contrary to the solitary art of painting, of writing poems, of making music, film is different. Film work is a conglomerate.''
Wajda made his first full-length feature at the age of 27. Set in Warsaw during the early stages of the uprising against the Nazis, ''Generation'' (1954) was his ''diploma film'' for graduation from the recently opened State Film Academy in Lodz, and is now considered a breakthrough for the Polish industry.
The story of a resistance group organized by the Young Communists contains some of the platitudes and most of the stock characters that conform to the dictates of Socialist Realism, the prevailing theory of art and literature behind the Iron Curtain. But the young director lifted his film free from bland manifesto by having two of the youngsters fall in love, and showing with vivid drama how a third comes to terms with fear in the final moments of his life, before pitching himself down a stairwell with the Nazis ascending.
As a matter of course, the censor came in to view the finished product. ''For the first time, I was faced by official criticism,'' Wajda remembers. '' 'This film is antisocialist,' the censor said. 'Not fit to be screened.' It was a schooling to last me all my life.''
There is no Hollywood to sell out to in Eastern Europe. Filmmakers behind the Iron Curtain depend on the state for everything, from undeveloped film to distribution. Inspiration is free, but the result is subject to a three-stage process of censorship in Poland: approval of a script and subsequent funding by the Ministry of Culture; the censor's imprimatur of the finished work; and distribution, the bottleneck where many films will get stoppered and consigned to the shelf.
Observers familiar with East-bloc filmmaking note that Draconian measures like these promote their own kind of mediocrity, plodding and propagandistic. But Wajda is quick to point out that they have done little to kill the appetite of Eastern Europeans for movies. ''Film is a passion not only in Poland. Hungary , for instance, which is a much smaller country than Poland, has some very good filmmakers. It could be that film is the means of expression for people of art, of thought, to expand ideas in Socialist countries.
''I would say it's on two grounds. First, they speak to their own populations in such a way. Second, they speak to other populations, other societies, overcoming the linguistic barrier. Literature comes with much difficulty to other countries. Plastic arts, painting, sculpture, come, but to very small sections of the population who take an interest in them. Music, yes. Music has audiences. But it is interesting that music is also something very strong in our culture.''
''In America,'' he brightens, ''there is faith in the idea that cinema is for everybody, and if the film is not made for everybody, this is a weakness on the part of the filmmakers. . . . I think it's splendid.
''I don't know that I would like to collide with the American film industry, '' he says, slapping the back of his hand into a moist palm. ''I don't know whether I would bow under that pressure. I once worked with an American scriptwriter and he said this to me . . . .'' Wajda hunches forward in his chair and pauses to get the phrasing right: '' 'You're a good filmmaker. I like your films. But you will become a real film director when you make a film according to my script, and people will know your name in Kansas City. . . .' And that is true.'' He laughs at himself for bringing off this American cartoon.
''So maybe I will go as far as Kansas City this time. If not, I do not lose hope, since perhaps in Kansas City there are young boys who are as I was at 12 or 13, when I saw a few films, I read a few books, and this attracted me to the world. Maybe there is a boy in Kansas City who should see one of my films. And I want to make such a film for him.''