Intermediate filaments (IFs) constitute a major structural element of animal cells. They build two distinct systems, one in the nucleus and one in the cytoplasm. In both cases, their major function is assumed to be that of a mechanical stress absorber and an integrating device for the entire cytoskeleton. In line with this, recent disease mutations in human IF proteins indicate that the nanomechanical properties of cell-type-specific IFs are central to the pathogenesis of diseases as diverse as muscular dystrophy and premature ageing. However, the analysis of these various diseases suggests that IFs also have an important role in cell-type-specific physiological functions.