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40 years of AIDS: How films dealt with the crisis

HIV and AIDS have been talked about for four decades. Many artists have illuminated the topic – also in moving images. A journey through film and TV history.

Paris/Los Angeles/Berlin – 40 years ago – 1982 – the mysterious new disease, which the US health authority CDC had first reported on in June 1981, was given the name AIDS. The virus that caused it was discovered in 1983 and has been known as HIV since 1986. Infection and disease have been part of everyday life for four decades. The effects were often processed culturally.

Early films are particularly impressive, including Rosa von Praunheim’s film “A virus knows no morality” (1986). In addition, some works tell the story of prominent HIV victims, such as Freddie Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody” with Rami Malek) or the musician Liberace (“Liberace – Too much of a good thing is wonderful” with Michael Douglas). With filmmakers like Pedro Almodovàr (“All About My Mother”) or Xavier Dolan (“Simply the End of the World”), HIV sometimes appears very prominently, sometimes only marginally.

A selection of other important feature films and series on the subject:


Jonathan Demme’s 1993 work was the first major Hollywood film to deal with AIDS and the homosexuals who are particularly affected by it. He has received many awards, including an Oscar for Tom Hanks for Best Actor and Bruce Springsteen for Best Original Song (“Streets of Philadelphia”).

„Dallas Buyers Club“

The film by Jean-Marc Vallée, who died in 2021, brought Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto 2014 Oscars for their performance. It is set in Texas in the early stages of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s; homophobic rodeo macho and daredevil Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) discovers he is HIV positive. He starts smuggling drugs that are still in the testing phase.

„It’s A Sin“

The 2021 mini-series chronicles the tragic fate of young gay men in 1980s London as the HI virus catches up with them one by one. Screenplay and idea come from the author Russell T Davies (“Queer as Folk”).

„120 BPM“

2017 French feature film directed by Robin Campillo and set in the early 1990s. It’s about the fight of the Paris act-up activists against the pharmaceutical lobby and discrimination.

“The Lovers – The Burden of Being Happy”

In the 2011 melodrama, Christophe Honoré spans an arc from the 1960s through AIDS to the turn of the millennium. The film has an excellent cast with Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Louis Garrel and Miloš Forman.

„Sorry Angel“

In this 2018 film, Christophe Honoré follows an HIV-positive man (Pierre Deladonchamps), knowing he is about to die, to fall in love with a younger man (Vincent Lacoste).

“Precious – Life is precious”

Lee Daniels’ 2009 social drama, starring Gabourey Sidibe, chronicles the self-rescue of an HIV-positive 16-year-old New Yorker who is raped by her father, abused by her mother and bullied at school.


Scandalous 1995 film by Larry Clark that depicts bored minors in America engaging in drug use and unprotected sex, and the careless spread of HIV.

„Same Same ButDifferent“

Drama by Detlev Buck with David Kross and Apinya Sakuljaroensuk. The 2009 film is based on the memories of the German Benjamin Prüfer, who fell in love with an HIV-infected young woman in Cambodia on a trip to Asia. dpa

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