Through pressure from his parents, Helfritz originally began an apprenticeship as a banker, a career path which he then soon after gave up in order to start studying music and composition in Berlin and Vienna. Inspired by his teacher Erich von Hornbostel in 1930 he travelled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Iraq to collect samples of folk music, in order to research and develop understanding of musical ethnology. In 1935 he continued his travels to India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Republic of China and Singapore.
Helfritz also made films about Yemen and Mexico as an assignment for Ufa. In these films he knowingly upheld the right-wing line of Joseph Goebbels, presenting foreign ethnicities as culturally unimportant.
In 1939 Helfritz fled Germany because of his homosexuality and political beliefs which meant he was labelled an enemy of the Nazi state. He fled first to Brazil and Bolivia, before settling in Chile. He continued to work, taking part in the Chilean Antarctic Expedition as the official photographer. At the end of the 1940s he received Chilean citizenship. Throughout the 1950s Helfritz explored Central America and West Africa from an archaeological perspective. Later he changed profession, working first as a tour guide in these regions, then as travel lecturer. In 1959 he settled down in Ibiza.