The intermediate filament protein desmin is an essential component of the extra-sarcomeric cytoskeleton in muscle cells. This three-dimensional filamentous framework exerts central roles in the structural and functional alignment and anchorage of myofibrils, the positioning of cell organelles and signaling events. Mutations of the human desmin gene on chromosome 2q35 cause autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, and sporadic myopathies and/or cardiomyopathies with marked phenotypic variability. The disease onset ranges from childhood to late adulthood. The clinical course is progressive and no specific treatment is currently available for this severely disabling disease. The muscle pathology is characterized by desmin-positive protein aggregates and degenerative changes of the myofibrillar apparatus. The molecular pathophysiology of desminopathies is a complex, multilevel issue. In addition to direct effects on the formation and maintenance of the extra-sarcomeric intermediate filament network, mutant desmin affects essential protein interactions, cell signaling cascades, mitochondrial functions, and protein quality control mechanisms. This review summarizes the currently available data on the epidemiology, clinical phenotypes, myopathology, and genetics of desminopathies. In addition, this work provides an overview on the expression, filament formation processes, biomechanical properties, post-translational modifications, interaction partners, subcellular localization, and functions of wild-type and mutant desmin as well as desmin-related cell and animal models.