Hans Helfritz filmed documentaries during his travels for the Ufa Documentary Film Department (Ufa Kulturfilmabteilung), of which six are still in existence.

Helfritz was interested in foreign cultures and it shines through in his films. Without distance, he tried to portray the people with sympathy and warmth. He brought the camera directly into what was happening, which pulled the viewer straight into the goings-on. He was thus able to obtain a special drama and vibrancy, especially with dance scenes. All of his films show Helfritz’s strong interest in the music and dance of other cultures.

"Film, in general, was especially exciting to me, although I had absolutely no talent for the performing arts. I could not draw well, I also could not paint, but I always had great interest in framing a photo well, and that is what I tried to do with photography. Film added the dimension of movement. Precisely this movement, both that of the camera as well as the object, the arrangement of the shots as well as the editing, for me all of this had a certain similarity to composing music, which is also about piecing together voices, chords and harmonies, just on a different level."

Mexico 1937/38

During his two stays in 1937/38 in Central America and the United States, where he gave lectures and filmed for the Ufa, in Mexico he shot the first-ever film recordings of the Voladores Dances (Steinschlangen und Vogelmenschen – Stone Snakes and Bird People). This dance had been forbidden by the Spanish Conquistadores, but had been passed down through the generations in secret and was completely unknown outside of Mexico. At the beginning of 1939, this documentary film was shown in cinemas.

The war put an end to his work for the Ufa. In exile in Chile, he created publicity films and documented some of his expeditions on film. Hans Helfritz also filmed for a planned documentary film about avocado orchards in Chile, Mexico, Guatemala and California. This project never came to fruition, however.


From the beginning of his travels in the 1920s until his death in 1995, the camera was Hans Helfritz’s constant companion. From 1930 onwards, he undertook spectacular journeys that gained him international attention. He brought back impressive photos from his trips to the Middle East and South Arabia in particular. In the 1930s, he was the first European to visit the ruins of Shabwa in Yemen in search of the biblical kingdom of Sheba, and after the Second World War he continued his travels through South America, Asia and for half a year West Africa. During his exile in Chile, he was asked to take part in expeditions as a photographer, including one to Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego.

He gained the trust of the people he photographed and thus achieved an immediacy that can be observed in his films as well. After the war, he continued to take photographs for his own publications and lectures. Over 25,000 photos in South America alone.

The Hans Helfritz Photo Archive

Immediately after Hans Helfritz’s death in 1996, the entire photographic estate has been donated to the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum (RJM) in Cologne with the help of Bodo von Dewitz, the director of the Agfa Photohistorama at the Museum Ludwig.

In a large-scale conservation project in 2017, Hans Helfritz’s entire collection was cleaned, digitized and archivally packaged by a team of 25 people under the direction of photo restorer Klaus Pollmeier and RJM photo curator Lucia Halder. The archive comprises around 80,000 individual images in various formats, making it the largest collection in the RJM’s Historical Photo Archive.

Hans Helfritz’s photos show foreign cultures, people, landscapes and sights way before mass tourism began. Our photo gallery presents a selection of pictures with the kind permission of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum.