The movies that have come out of West Germany in recent years have run into a curiously schizoid destiny in this country. On the one hand, they show up in formidable numbers at the prestigious film festivals, where they are hailed by critics as signaling a rebirth of German film art. On the other hand, they don't sell.

The sampling which begins at the American Film Institute Theater tonight and will continue through Feb. 10 helps explain both sides of the dichotomy. Festival, catering to the hard-core film enthusiasts, often gravitate toward weighty content, and these German pictures are nothing if not weighty. But that same quality, along with a certain pervasive grimness in manner, pretty well rules out appeal in the American market.

Popularity, of course, isn't always synonymous with quality, and to be sure there are various signs of esthetic distinction in this body of work. As a whole, however, it seems rather a drab lot. There are 17 films in the AFI's current "New German Cinema" series, including entries by the best know contemporary German directors, such as Fassbinder, Herzog, Kluge and Schlondorff. Of the half I was able to preview, a number inspired admiration, but few generated even a modicum of affection.

Classic German films of the Expressionists period certainly had their grim sides too. So did the films shown in a previous AFI survey of 1972. But there were other things like originality, fantasy, and a kind of fascinatingly berserk passion, which provided a valid dramatic cushion for the shadows. Currently, there appears to be a dearth of such compensatins.

An AFI program not suggest that recent German films have fallen victim in this country to "old myths" that German pictures were invariably "gloomy, humorless over-intellectualized, lacking in rounded, sympathetic characters." In the case of the present series, one can only observe how snugly the shoe fits.

The most striking trait these films have in common is an absence of a direct expression of feeling. Everything is distanced, either by impersonal narration, the remoteness of period, or by ironic, "alienating" devices. The ghost of Bertolt Brecht seems to have spooked these film-makers in a bloodless detachment.

Even the most interesting, of the films tend to remind one of similar, but superior, efforts by others. Fassbinder's "Effi Briest," like Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" or Truffaut's "Two English Girls," strives for a carefully composed, novelistic effect, but it lacks the flair of the former and the lyricism of the latter. Handsome it is, frame by frame, but also almost tiresomely static. Kluge's "Strong Man Ferdinand," like "The Conversation," examines on obsession with stealth and security, but its heavy ironies are more ludicrous than comic. Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's "Ludwig II" begins, like Daniel Schmid's "La Paloma," in a promisingly grotesque, parodistic vein, but it quickly descends to more turgidity.

A few pictures escape the general pall. Fassbinder's "Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven," about an old widow who resists the hucksters' attempts to exploit her misfortune, is sympathetic in its bluntness. Schlondorff's "A Free Woman" is a vivid study of a woman groping toward liberation.

There's also Werner Herzog's "Every Man for Himself," depicting "wild man" Kaspar Hauser's bitter encounter with civilization - a quietly compassionate, probing film that has had a commercial run on its won.

The seriousness of comtemporary German flimmaking commands respect. A little more spontaneity and compassion would go a long way toward converting respect to devotion.