Friday night, hours before Poland's head of state was voted out, the pale blue room at the Polish Embassy in Washington was bright with light and laughter. Portraits of patriots stared down from the walls at the quiet irony being played out beneath them. Andrzej Wajda, the Polish film director who won the Golden Palm at Cannes last spring for a film that celebrated a triumph over the very authority vested within those walls, smiled his thanks to those who had come to meet him. "We had to have this reception," said an embassy official as he looked on at the tight cluster of admirers. "After all, there is only one Wajda in Poland."

It was the first reception at the embassy since March. "Because of the austerity at home, we don't arrange receptions at all," said the official. "We didn't celebrate our national day or army day; and even this tonight, it is very simple -- as you can see there is no table. Still, this one is special."

For 26 years, Andrzej Wajda (pronounced Anjay Vydah), who received an honorary degree from American University this weekend, has been Poland's most politically and artistically audacious film director and a national hero in a country where art, politics and patriotism are often inextricably entwined. "He speaks to the heart of the Polish people," says Jan Kott, reknowned dramatist and compatriot of Wajda's. "To us, the past is like a wound that is still alive. Wajda captures that pain."

In his latest movie, "Man of Iron," he has captured the promise as well. He made his movie close on the heels of history, an intense, vivid account of the strike in the shipyards of Gdansk that led to the government's recognition of Solidarity and the heady days of change that followed. "It is a melodramatic and optimistic vision of what happened last year," says Kott. "And already, the paradise is almost closed. Already the future is so much darker."

But no, says Wajda, as he leans forward in his chair, a bright red and white Solidarity pin on his lapel, he does not feel nervous living in the shadow of all that threatens the gains that have been made. "In physics, you have the phenomenon of the eye of the cyclone," he says. "And that is where I live."

It's very strange," he says through his interpreter. "You are very nervous and worried when you leave Poland and you read American newspapers or watch French television. You're shaking like jelly. But it stops when you get to the border. Then I feel as if I live in the most calm place in the world."

Wajda is 55, a man of middle height and a mercurial smile, with gray hair and pale blue eyes. His fourth wife, Krystyna Zachwatowicz, accompanied him on the visit, his first to Washington, although not to the United States -- in 1974 he directed the Yale Repertory Company, which at the time included Meryl Streep, in an adaptation of Dostoevsky's "The Possessed." He has, he says, "kind of a strange impression" of Washington: "It is a city that seems to be built for symbolism; when you walk along the wide streets, you see a city made to be looked at -- beautiful, with great paths of grace."

Wajda finished "Man of Iron" just days before it received its first public showing, at the Cannes Film Festival, and his pride in winning the Golden Palm still washes over his face. "It is a prize that no socialist country has ever received," he says. "I had won the second-place prize when I was 30. Now I was looking forward to winning the real one. It was an important moment. We felt like we had made an important film -- not necesarily the best film, but an important one."

"Man of Iron" is a sequel to "Man of Marble," which tells of a worker-hero of the Stalinist era and his disillusionment with and rebellion against the empty promises of the authorities. Nearly three hours long, it unfolds like a detective story, following the young filmmaker Agnieszka as she gradually uncovers the tale of Mateusz Birkut, an idealistic young bricklayer who becomes a star of the propaganda films after he is discovered by an ambitious film director looking for a model worker to glorify.

Dodging the efforts of the censors and the authorities of the film school, Agnieszka tracks Birkut's transformation, how he changes from the naive young worker who enthusiastically travels from town to town giving bricklaying demonstrations, until a fellow worker sabotages his efforts by handing him a hot brick that permanently cripples his hands; how he tries to defend a friend who is sent to prison on a trumped-up charge and is sent to prison himself after he runs afoul of the bureaucracy; how he becomes the object of ridicule to his wife and his friends and the film director who made him, all because they knew what he did not, that the banners and slogans and promises were not to be believed, only parroted.

Millions saw the film in Poland, and the audiences wept and sang the national anthem. "I wanted to explain to the younger generation why their parents were nervous, why they lied, why they drank vodka," Wajda said in an earlier interview.

"Man of Iron" takes up the story of Birkut's son -- a student who finds himself alienated from his father when the shipyard workers refuse to support the student strike of 1968. Birkut dies in the workers' riots of 1970 along the Baltic Coast. Birkut's son then resolves to carry on his father's struggle, and the film documents the efforts of the strikers and the government as they try to reach a resolution, calling on performances from real-life participants like Lech Walesa as well as the fictional characters.

"Man of Iron" closed the New York film festival recently, and some critics felt that unlike "Man of Marble," its characters lacked humanity and subtlety, serving instead as mere symbols in the unfolding struggle. Wajda dismisses the criticism with a shrug. "I don't really think about whether it will be liked in New York," he says. "I want it to be understood, but I made it for a Polish audience. I want them to understand. I want something to happen. We in Poland are raised with a certain way of thinking and feeling. We feel that the art of film has a certain social aspect, that it should be a motor for changing the social order. You must not fool yourself as to the degree that film, or any art, can change history, but our duty is not to stand around and wait. The last years have shown us that. We have to take our moral position in relation to the facts. In relation to history."

And in relation to the passage of time. "I am now one of the older directors," he says with a rueful smile. "It's hard. I've tried all my life to be as independent of authority, of the audience and of my colleagues as I could. I thought that was very important. I thought that it would keep me young. But now I see so much talent among my younger colleagues, and now I think that the young people will make the movies that will say something important."

Wajda rushed to complete "Man of Iron," filming the summer scenes in February in an effort to have the film finished by the anniversary of the strike. It was the first movie, he said, that he has ever made to order. "I went to the shipyard during the strike," he says. "One of the workers who was taking me around said to me, 'Mr. Andrzej, why don't you make a film about us, about the men of iron?' " Wajda was overwhelmed by what he saw in the shipyards, by the intensity of the workers, by the charisma and energy of Lech Walesa.

"Walesa is fantastic," he says. "He is the greatest optimist I've ever seen. I thought I was the greatest optimist, but somehow he understood; more than that, he felt it, he had within him a vision. He imagines, and it's true, that the real strength of Poland is its workers. He sees them as a very conscious power and strength, people who know exactly what they want and who cannot agree with the way they are treated."

Wajda was impressed when the striking shipyard workers included high in their list of demands the end to censorship. "It was beautiful and amazing, because the workers don't write history," he says. It was also the redemption of a long-abandoned promise, one that seems to fuel Wajda's optimism even in the face of a future that seems to leave very little room for the brash hopes of those summer days. "Maybe the optimism is greater than it should be," he says softly. "But up to now, I have always felt connected to a small group of intellectuals and now, since last year, I feel connected to an enormous movement of 10 million members. I am truly conscious that what I do will make only a minimal difference. That it is a great movement that will decide my life."

He pauses for a moment. "When we learned Marxism," he says, "we were taught that the working class was the most important. Everyone repeated it, but no one believed it. And now they do. For 26 years, I felt I was alone. And now I am no longer." He smiles. "That's why it's rather hard to leave."

"Man of Iron" was screened just before Wajda received his honorary degree of doctor of humane letters, and at the reception afterward, discussion of the film floated above the punch bowls. This being a university, there was the obligatory academic approach: "Just as the romantic reveled in the unfinished poem -- Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' comes to mind, of course -- so too the incoherence of the film becomes a positive quality," one tweedy-looking type was overheard to say.

Among Wajda's expatriate compatriots, however, the conversation took on a different tone. "Neither you nor I could lead masses of people and tell them the truth," said one Polish guest. "And Wajda can. The public expects something of him now. He has a responsibility to make political films, to say something. Now, if he makes a different kind of film, he's wasting time."

Besides, said the guest, "to find a truly optimistic Pole is like finding an elephant in Iceland. The Polish temperament has more to do with zal, with a nostalgic sorrow. Like Chopin nocturnes. In Poland, we've always liked sad movies. We're not used to happy endings."