"Film is like a highway," says Istvan Szabo, who won an Academy Award this year for his Hungarian-West German film "Mephisto."

"You have a direction. You're either going this way or that way," he says, stretching out one sturdy arm. "And I tell the actors the direction they're going in . . . If you go the other way, it's a different film."

Actually, he amends in Hungarian to his interpreter, "Film is like a road. On this road there are cross streets and you have to stop. If the light is green, everything's okay and you continue. If it's red, you have to stop. I turn on a red light or a green light on the road." He chuckles.

"And then in this road there are lanes, and one person is in this lane and another person is in that lane." His hands slice lane markers in the starkly lit air of the American Film Institute's screening room. "I also tell the speed and what the limit is and what the minimum and maximum are. And the car itself," he says, raising his eyebrows in delight, settling back in his chair, "is also in my hands."

Szabo's 1979 film "Confidence" opened the eight-film New Hungarian Cinema series last night at the American Film Institute. (It will be shown again Saturday and Monday nights.) It is an intense and engrossing film, carefully and artfully photographed, about a man and a woman forced together under assumed identities in a Hungarian town during World War II. In the flicker of light and movement, the film oscillates from suspense to sensuality. The two spar, neither trusting the other politically or emotionally. But the man's lack of confidence in the woman is as much a result of his wartime discipline as his cowardice.

"It's very hard to find confidence," Szabo says, "and it's very easy to lose it."

"Confidence," shown at the New York Film Festival, had won best film at the Berlin Film Festival two years before "Mephisto" won an Academy Award this year for best foreign film. Szabo's portrait of an unprincipled German actor whose success results from cultivating Nazi patrons was a surprise choice over the popular "Man of Iron" by Polish filmmaker Andrezj Wajda.

Szabo's description of the night he won the Oscar sounds like a scene from a movie by Fellini, one of his favorite directors.

"The public doesn't see the whole process. After you get your Oscar, you walk through the back through several rooms. There are lines set up and behind the lines there are hundreds of reporters and photographers and radio and television people in separate rooms.

"You go from room to room with your Oscar. It's almost like a zoo because they're behind bars and you're in the center of the room . . . They yell at you out of the cages," he says, snapping his fingers to denote the pace of the questions, "and you have a master of ceremonies who kind of directs it and says, 'Enough, next stop.' Then you move on and radio reporters ask you questions with all the microphones and then the TV room comes and all the cameras are on you. It's very exciting."

He smiles at the remembrance. He is 44, with blondish closely cropped hair, Hungarian born. He lives in Budapest and is one of Hungary's leading filmmakers. On one wrist is an old Swiss watch he inherited from his father. His leading male character in "Confidence" wears it in the film. Szabo is in Washington, the guest of the U.S. Information Agency, until Sunday and then travels around the country until early October.

He doesn't have to worry about film budgets -- he gets what money he needs from the government-financed film industry. The Oscar has brought more film offers, and he expects he will get a lot "for about a year or until the next bad film."

With the exception of an extravagance of metaphor, he is almost shy about his work: "I make the film. The audience should get the message. I can't say what it is. There are directors who like to say, 'This is what I want to say.' It would be simpler and cheaper if the director would say, 'This is it.' He wouldn't have to do the film."

His forte is the film that studies relationships. In both "Confidence" and "Mephisto," there is no music. "Music is the human voice," Szabo says. "There's no need for music. The music is only to express the historical time period. The light is more important -- how it shines on the face, the colors."

In several of his films he has gone back to the setting he knows best, the one he grew up in -- World War II. Right now, he's writing a screenplay set in pre-World War I Austria-Hungary. "I feel ready to do a different period," he says. "I don't want to be known as Szabo who does only the Second World War period."

His favorite directors include John Cassavetes, Woody Allen -- "Annie Hall" was a favorite -- Hitchcock, Bergman. Most of the current crop of science-fiction and special-effects films bore him. "They are a little bit naive," he says, "on too low an intellectual level. I'm interested in relationships between people . . . What's happening in outer space and fantasy doesn't interest me."

He makes an exception for Steven Spielberg. "He has some irony," Szabo says. "He doesn't take it so seriously. He knows it's just a fairy tale, and he tries to prove some human values."

Szabo still hasn't seen Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "E.T." He hopes to see the latter this week. "I was in Germany last week, and everyone was talking about it," he says.